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War in Ukraine fuels ‘alarming increase’ in hospital superbug infections, report warns

31 year-old Ukrainian soldier, Vadim suffering shrapnel wounds to his face lays in a hospital bed on October 09, 2023 in Dnipro, Ukraine
Across the 353 surveyed patients, 14 per cent were found to have picked up infections while in hospital – high rates of AMR among them - Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Hospitals in Ukraine are battling an “alarming increase” in the spread of drug-resistant infections fuelled by the ongoing war with Russia, a new report has found.

The study said the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in Ukraine’s healthcare systems was an “urgent crisis” that needed to be addressed immediately.

Researchers at the Center for Public Health of Ukraine (UPHC) conducted surveys for infections and AMR at three regional hospitals throughout November and December 2022.

Across the 353 surveyed patients, 14 per cent were found to have picked up infections while in hospital. Among these, high rates of AMR were identified, with 60 per cent having an infection with an organism resistant to carbapenem, a class of highly effective antibiotics used for severe bacterial infections.

These rates are substantially higher than those reported from a 2016/17 European Union-wide survey, which included more than 300,000 acute care hospital patients and 100,000 long-term care facility residents.

Among the respondents, 5.5 per cent had picked up infections while in hospital, the study found. Some 6.2 per cent of the infections were resistant to carbapenem.

Wounded servicemen in a hospital ward in Kryvyi Rih, southern Ukraine Kryvyi Rih
Repercussions of war include a breakdown in hygiene levels and inconsistent availability of crucial antibiotic susceptibility testing - Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

The report called for the UPHC, along with support from international partners, to develop “locally led and implemented measures” to address AMR in Ukraine.

“Urgent capacity building to prevent, detect, and respond to antimicrobial resistance is needed to save lives within Ukraine and limit international spread,” the researchers said.

The research, conducted by the UPHC in collaboration with the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and others, highlights the role of war in fuelling antimicrobial resistance.

Repercussions include a breakdown in hygiene levels, including hand washing, and inconsistent availability of crucial antibiotic susceptibility testing.

“In Ukraine, the confluence of high pre-war rates of antimicrobial resistance, an increase in the prevalence of traumatic wounds, and the war-related strain on health care facilities is leading to increased detection of multidrug-resistant organisms with spread into Europe,” the researchers wrote.

“Bacterial antimicrobial resistance is estimated to cause more deaths than HIV or malaria and is recognized as a leading global public health threat.”

AMR is a top global public health concern. It occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites mutate and no longer respond to medicines designed for them.

The WHO estimates that bacterial AMR caused 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019 and contributed to a further 4.95 million deaths.

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