Can a New White House Plan Catch Up to the “Superbug” Threat?

March 27, 2015
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With the global health community increasingly on edge about the threat from potentially deadly bacteria that are immune to many of today’s most common antibiotics, the White House on Friday released an ambitious plan to stem the spread of such so-called superbugs.

The primary challenge of the superbug threat is that the more modern medicine makes use of antibiotics, the more resistant many germs can become to the drugs. Under the administration’s National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, the government would have until 2020 to meet five broad objectives. The plan calls for slowing the spread of drug-resistant bacteria; improving the tracking of outbreaks; speeding the development of tests designed to cut unnecessary antibiotic use; getting new drugs to the market faster; and strengthening international cooperation around the issue.

“Antibiotics have been a critical public health tool since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, saving the lives of millions of people around the world,” according to an executive summary of the plan. “Today, however, the emergence of drug-resistance in bacteria is reversing miracles of the past 80 years, with drug choices for the treatment of many bacterial infections becoming increasingly limited, expensive, and, in some cases, nonexistent.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses in the U.S. every year, and kill another 23,000. In May, the World Health Organization characterized the problem as “so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine.”

The White House plan calls on the CDC to reduce the rates of some of the deadliest and most widespread infections. For example, infections from carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, which was linked to at least two deaths at a UCLA medical center last month, would decline by 60 percent. Clostridium difficile infections, which surged 400 percent between 2000 and 2007, would be cut by half, according to the plan’s targets.

To get there, the administration is seeking fixes big and small. Hospitals, for instance, would be asked to boost basic infection control procedures, like getting doctors and nurses to wash their hands. Larger initiatives include doubling screenings for tuberculosis among migrants coming from countries with high incidences of the disease from 500,000 to 1 million people per year.

The plan also takes aim at the problem of antibiotic use in food animals, which public health officials have long suspected of contributing to the rise and spread of superbugs. Up to 70 percent of all antibiotics now sold in the U.S. are used in food animals, in part because the drugs have come to be used not to treat a specific medical condition, but to help animals grow faster on less feed. To address the risk, the administration’s is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics to promote growth in food animals.

Although the initiative represents the government’s first-ever attempt to broadly address the issue of antibiotic resistance, the plan has been quickly dismissed by some scientists and lawmakers for not going far enough. In an interview with Politico, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the only microbiologist in Congress, said that goals set for 2020 are too far off to make up for lost ground.

“I’ve said to people, ‘Right now your government is not going to protect you,'” said Slaughter. “They’re about 10 years behind.”

Related Film: Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria

FRONTLINE investigates the rise of deadly drug-resistant bacteria.

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