Superbugs and air pollution should be top research priorities, survey finds

Anne Gulland
Smog blankets the Shard and St Paul's Cathedral in London - REUTERS

The growth of superbugs and the threat of climate change and air pollution should be the top research priorities of the scientific community, a survey canvassing people’s attitudes to global health threats has found.

Earlier this year the World Health Organization listed the 10 greatest health threats facing the world and set out how to tackle them in its five-year plan.

The list – which WHO did not put in any order of priority – included infectious diseases such as Ebola, influenza and HIV but also showed that environmental threats and non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes were becoming equally urgent.

Also on the list was antimicrobial resistance (AMR) - the increasing number of infections which are becoming resistant to antibiotics – and vaccine hesitancy – the refusal of or mistrust of vaccines.

In a poll by YouGov 2,000 adults were asked to decide which issues on WHO’s list should be tackled by the scientific community.

The top priority for research was antimicrobial resistance with nearly two thirds of those polled – 59 per cent – putting this at the top of the list. Those in the 55-plus age group were most likely to believe that this was a priority with 67 per cent listing it as an urgent threat.

Earlier this year a report by the United Nations warned that, if left unchecked, superbugs could kill 10 million people a year by 2050 and have as devastating effect on the global economy as the 2008 financial crisis.

The second most urgent priority among those polled was air pollution and climate change, with 54 per cent listing these as important global health issues. Those aged 18 to 24 were more likely to list these issues than those in older age groups, with 61 per cent of the youngest age group agreeing that the scientific community should tackle this.

The WHO says that air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health and estimates that seven million people die prematurely every year because of breathing in microscopic pollutants in the air which penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems.

However, it also predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will lead to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

Despite the growing concern over vaccine hesitancy and the large numbers of measles outbreaks around the world that have been linked to low vaccination rates only 36 per cent of those polled felt that people refusing to have themselves or their children vaccinated was an urgent research priority.

Last week a major study by the Wellcome Trust revealed that people in the UK had higher trust of vaccines than other parts of Europe - which may describe the low numbers of people thinking this was a problem. 

Poor access to primary health care, emergencies such as drought or long-standing conflict and the rise in non-communicable diseases were all seen as more urgent global priorities than “vaccine hesitancy”.

Respondents put the threat of another Ebola outbreak and the HIV/Aids epidemic on an almost equal footing. Some 23 per cent of respondents said Ebola should be a global health research priority, compared to 22 per cent saying the same about HIV/Aids.

This may be a reflection of the fact that HIV has become a manageable condition in countries such as the UK, although it still kills around one million people every year worldwide.

Unsurprisingly dengue fever – a debilitating mosquito-borne illness which affects people in Latin America, Asia and Africa – was seen as the lowest priority, with just 13 per cent of those polled believing that it should be a global health priority.

Victoria Waldersee, researcher at YouGov, said: “YouGov research has found that only two of the WHO's top 10 global threats were seen by a majority of Brits as a priority in 2019. At the start of the year the WHO set out what they believe to be the most dangerous issues demanding attention but apart from antibiotic resistance and climate change, none of the other issues listed were seen as priorities by a majority of the British public.

"This suggests that health campaigners will need to engage more with the public if they want to convey the dangers out there.”

Chris Large, senior partner at Global Action Plan, the charity behind the Clean Air Day pollution campaign, said that the public wanted to know more about air pollution.

“This chimes with our experience – our latest UK public air pollution survey found that 83 per cent of people believe that air pollution has some effect on their health but only 16 per cent of people knew who to turn to for advice. The government is badly letting the public down by not running an air pollution public information campaign on the scale of healthy eating and anti-smoking campaigns," he said. 

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