Obama Budget Would Double Federal Spending to Fight Superbugs

January 27, 2015
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The White House outlined plans on Tuesday to double federal spending to fight drug-resistant bacteria — or superbugs — that infect an estimated 2 million Americans, claiming about 23,000 lives each year.

Bacteria, which naturally develop resistance to drugs, have been evolving faster and are becoming harder to kill due to extensive use of antibiotics in humans and animals, including on farms. In a new fact sheet, the White House described the problem as “one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today.”

Also read: Superbugs Killing Thousands of Newborns in India

Obama’s proposed 2016 fiscal year budget included $1.2 billion for combating and preventing antibiotic resistance. The proposal follows a September 2014 executive order that launched federal efforts to combat the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, director at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington & New Delhi, told FRONTLINE that the proposed funding was “at a level that will actually make a significant impact on the problem.”

“I think it’s a great start,” he said Tuesday. “It really shows leadership on this issue. … It signals a priority by this administration.”

Proposing a budget and getting it through Congress are not the same. But Laxminarayan expressed hope that Democrats and Republicans would unite against superbugs.

“At least there are a few things that the president and Congress can agree on, and protecting public health should be one of those issues,” he said.

The proposal would go before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, said the Tennessee Republican “looks forward to reviewing the plan fully when the budget comes out next week.”

“Senator Alexander is glad the President’s proposal recognizes the dangerous threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the importance of finding new antimicrobials. This threat to public safety is exactly why a bipartisan group in the Senate HELP Committee worked to include proposals to incentivize the development of antibiotics in the FDA Safety and Innovation Act in 2012,” she told FRONTLINE.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), the only microbiologist in Congress, said that while Obama’s proposals were important, it is crucial that the country stop overusing antibiotics on farms — “the most significant cause of antibiotic resistance.”

“Right now, 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the United States are used on healthy food animals as a means to make them gain weight and to compensate for unspeakable conditions on the farm,” Slaughter said in a statement. “If the FDA continues to allow industry to police itself under a voluntary policy, the misuse will continue to create superbugs that even new antibiotics may be unable to treat.”

Also read: Senators Ask FDA to Track Antibiotic Use on Farms

Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture Program, also called for oversight of antibiotics on farms.

Though he credited Obama with trying to devote more resources to fighting superbugs, Kaplan wrote in a blog post: “Until we have meaningful requirements to reduce the livestock use of antibiotics, and a comprehensive system for tracking antibiotic use, I fear the microbes will remain on the winning side.”

A number of recent studies have raised concern about the global threat from superbugs. An analysis in December found that superbugs killed 58,000 Indian infants in 2013. Another report commissioned by British Prime Minister David Cameron found that unless antibiotic-resistant bacteria are stopped, they could kill an average of 10 million people a year by 2050, and cost the global economy up to $100 trillion between now and then.

And a World Health Organization report last year warned that the world is entering a period in which common infections will become deadlier because drugs are less effective against them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the United States, superbug infections lead to at least $20 billion in excess direct health care costs, and up to $35 billion in lost productivity due to hospitalizations and sick days each year.

For more on the fight against antimicrobial resistance, watch The Trouble With Antibiotics:

(Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Jan. 28 to add a response from Alexander’s spokeswoman.)

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