Iraq could be the epicenter of a global superbug outbreak, a new study warns
Shafaq News/ Scientists at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, say decades of war in the country — including the US invasion in the 2000s — had led to a 'catastrophic rise' in antibiotic resistance.
Destroyed healthcare infrastructure, medicine shortages, heavy metal contamination and poor sanitation were all likely to blame, they argued.
Scientists and doctors are concerned about a bacteria emerging that cannot be treated using currently available antibiotics. Estimates suggest it could cause 10million deaths a year by 2050 if no action is taken.
Last month the discovery of supergonorrhea in Massachusetts — which showed signs of resistance to antibiotics — prompted health authorities to warn the bacteria poses a 'serious public health concern'.
Previously, antibiotic resistance has largely been attributed to the overuse of antibiotics.
But attention is now turning to other factors, such as heavy metals and disinfectants that are used in conflict, healthcare and the hospitality sector.
War has been implicated as a factor in the emergence of antibiotic resistance since the 1940s, but the authors say it has received little attention.
The scientists said they chose to focus on Iraq because the country had been beset by conflicts for the past four decades.
This included the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the First Gulf War in 1991, and the US-led invasion and occupation launched in the 2000s. The country also faced an Islamic State insurgency in the 2010s.
The study authors, whose paper was published in the journal BMJ Global Health, reviewed other studies in the paper to warn that the conflicts had led to an environment perfect for the spread of ‘microbial pathogens’ in the country, which cause disease.
Metals used in weaponry and explosives such as lead, mercury, chromium and copper, are all present in war environments.
Some bacteria species taken from these areas are already shown to have evolved resistance to combat these heavy metals' toxicity.
Study author Dr Antoine Abou Fayad said: 'Contemporary conflicts waged in urban and industrialized landscapes pressure microbes with selective environments that contain unique combinations and concentrations of toxic heavy metals and antibiotics, while simultaneously providing niches and dissemination routes for microbial pathogens.
'These can include the high number of wounded, the nature of wounds, refugee displacement, the collapse of sanitation controls, loss of diagnostics and skilled healthcare personnel, the dismantlement of healthcare infrastructures and the placement of often under-resourced and improvised field hospitals where both injured combatants and civilians are exposed to harmful pathogens with limited care and resources to properly recover.'
Though war environments have been linked with the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) since the 1940s, the research team say the risk posed by Iraq has so far received little attention.
They say it needs to be studied further in order to prevent millions of unnecessary deaths.
Dr Fayad added: 'Taken together, a destroyed healthcare infrastructure, inappropriate microbial therapies, limited resources, high heavy metal contamination in humans and the environment, and a lack of [clean water, sanitation and hygiene], combined, likely play instrumental roles in the catastrophic rise of AMR in Iraq and, by extension, regionally and globally.
'Understanding these linkages between AMR and conflict, especially across time, is essential for a global response to AMR, especially as there is little indication that conflict, worldwide, will abate in years to come.'
Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs.
The World Health Organization has previously warned if nothing is done the world was headed for a 'post-antibiotic' era.
It claimed common infections, such as chlamydia, will become killers without immediate answers to the growing crisis.
Bacteria can become drug resistant when people take incorrect doses of antibiotics, or they are given out unnecessarily.
Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies claimed in 2016 that the threat of antibiotic resistance is as severe as terrorism.
Figures estimate that superbugs will kill ten million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once-harmless bugs.
Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world.
Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the 'dark ages' if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.
In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.
In September, the World Health Organisation warned antibiotics are 'running out' as a report found a 'serious lack' of new drugs in the development pipeline.
Without antibiotics, cesarean sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements would also become incredibly 'risky', it was said at the time.