President Obama Doubles Down on the Fight against Superbugs

Calling antibiotic resistance “one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today,” the President’s FY 2016 Budget, announced Tuesday, proposes an historic investment – almost doubling the current budget to an unprecedented $1.2 billion – to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A meeting of PCAST members with President Obama, 2014

The Budget is Obama’s effort to pay for the game plan on antibiotic resistance, announced in September, drawn up by his eminently qualified President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Eric Lander, PhD, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and co-chair of PCAST, assessed the state of play at the time: “There is no permanent victory against microbes. If you use antibiotics, whether in human health care or in agriculture, you will over time see resistance. If we fail, if we fall behind in our stewardship, in our creation [of new antibiotics or equivalent therapies], or if we fail to surveil to understand what’s going on, it’s a very real risk to see a resurgence of what life looked like a century ago when we had bugs we could not treat. It’s a terrifying prospect. Now … it doesn’t help to do scare tactics around these things but it’s just plain scary.”

Since then, there have been two notable events.

One, the announcement in December by UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s working group on antimicrobial resistance that deaths caused by untreatable infection will overtake deaths caused by cancer by the year 2050.

Two, the report in the New York Times that India’s infants are born with bacterial infections that are resistant to most known antibiotics, and more than 58,000 died last year as a result. That if these “resistant infections keep growing … it would be a disaster for not only India but the entire world.”

Quoting health officials, the Times reports that the infections are in fact growing rapidly: “Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections. Now, close to 100 percent of the babies referred to us have multidrug resistant infections. It’s scary … And these resistant infections have already begun to migrate elsewhere … reaching just about every country in the world … including … the United States.”

Migrate here? The recent Ebola scare in the US is a useful reminder of a bedrock principle of infectious disease: “A disease outbreak anywhere is a disease risk everywhere,” says Tom Frieden, MD, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of course, there is a crucial difference between Ebola and antibiotic- resistant infections: Ebola is transferred only from the very sick through their body fluids. Most ABR infections, on the other hand, travel through the air and are therefore as easy to catch as the common cold. So imagine then, if Thomas Eric Duncan, the only person to die in the US from Ebola, was left wandering Dallas for 5 days with an undiagnosed case of MRSA, say, as he was with Ebola. What then?

That is just one scenario that would constitute Dr. Landers’ “terrifying prospect.” And that is why President Obama rightly calls antibiotic resistance one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today.

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