Skip main navigation

Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?

As antibiotics become increasingly ineffective, even minor surgeries and routine operations could become high-risk procedures

As antibiotics become increasingly ineffective due to the development and spread of resistant infections, even minor surgeries and routine operations could become high-risk procedures, leading to prolonged illnesses and increased mortality.

Without effective antibiotics, the success of modern medicine such as cancer chemotherapy or major surgery will be compromised.

Pyramid of antibiotic use - The antibiotic pyramid shows how many types of diseases and surgical procedures often relies on effective antibiotics.

The antibiotic pyramid shows how many types of diseases and surgical procedures often rely on effective antibiotics. Image sourced from ReAct Group.


Antibiotic resistance is global and growing rapidly due to widespread misuse of antibiotics, putting patients at risk of ‘superbugs’ that are difficult (and sometimes impossible) to treat.

Some countries have reported that more than 42% of infections are resistant to common therapies. Life-threatening infections caused by Klebsiella pneumoniae that are resistant to the last resort treatment, carbapenems, have already spread worldwide.

Failure to treat gonorrhoea using a ‘last resort’ medicine has been confirmed in at least 10 countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

As resistance continues to increase, it has been estimated that by 2050 infections resistant to drugs will be the number one cause of death globally, with 10 million people dying every year.

Causes of death globally 2050 - AMR is currently estimated to affect 700,000 people but by 2050 it may affect 10 million.

Image sourced from the ‘Review on Antimicrobial Resistance’.

Economic impact

Both the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda and the World Bank have highlighted the potential annual economic impact of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) — up to 3.4 trillion USD per year.

Antibiotic resistance is so serious that it has been compared to the risk posed by climate change and global terrorism. With little prospect of new classes of antibiotics being developed (at least in the short term), a ‘post-antibiotic’ era is anticipated, in which effective antibiotics are no longer available for large populations.

Engaging with these headline figures is hard; the scale of the impact is too large for us to feel a sense of personal jeopardy. Behind the headlines, however, are personal stories of lives changed forever. Surviving an infection that is resistant to antibiotics can be traumatic.

This article is from the free online

Tackling Antibiotic Resistance: What Should Dental Teams Do?

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now