Iraq war ‘sparked rise in drug-resistant bacteria that could wipe out millions’

Decades of war in Iraq have sparked a rise in drug-resistant bacteria that could wipe out millions of people, according to a new study.

Scientists at the Department of Experimental Pathology, Immunology & Microbiology at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon say this "catastrophic" problem could spread and cause 10 million deaths by 2050.

According to the study, a combination of destroyed healthcare infrastructure, shortages of medicine, metal contamination and poor sanitation caused by conflicts in Iraq since the 1980s are responsible.

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Those conflicts include the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the First Gulf War in 1991, the US-led occupation in the 2000s and wars between the Iraqi state and so-called Islamic State in the 2010s.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Global Health, found these conflicts have created an environment perfect for the spread of pathogens that cause disease.

Some bacterial species appeared to have evolved resistance to the toxicity of metals used in weaponry and explosives such as lead, mercury, chromium and copper.

Study author Dr Antoine Abou Fayad said: “Contemporary conflicts waged in urban and industrialised 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.

“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.”

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