In the dry language of medical journals and papers, the looming public health catastrophe is known as the coming “post-antibiotic era.’’
As bacteria grow increasingly resistant to the current arsenal of these infection-fighting drugs and with too few replacements under development, one of the pillars of modern medicine is under assault and weakening precipitously. Without dramatic action to protect the potency of current drugs and develop new ones, “seven decades of medical advances enabled by antibiotics are now seriously threatened,’’ according to a paper from the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Some of the common but critical medical care that could be “severely hampered” includes organ transplants, joint-replacement surgery, chemotherapy for cancer patients and care for premature infants. The lack of these drugs could also bring about “pre-antibiotic era” perils when common infections killed or left patients with deafness, heart damage or other lasting impairments.
The antibiotic resistance threat is well-documented, and it’s time for bold action. That’s why President Obama’s new call for a “historic investment” — a $1.2 billion infusion that would nearly double current federal funding — to combat antibiotic resistance merits praise and support.
The president released the details of this critical new health initiative last week, previewing its inclusion in his 2016 budget request slated for release Monday. The spotlight is welcome and needed. It will have to be approved by a GOP-controlled Congress still committed to austerity for anything other than military spending.
There is already broad support from medical experts in Minnesota and elsewhere for this ambitious public health battle plan from the White House. A key animal agricultural industry interest in Minnesota, the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, also weighed in, praising funding for research. That support is encouraging. Antibiotics are used extensively in livestock production. Agriculture must be part of the solution.
There ought to be bipartisan congressional support for the proposal as well. And there isn’t time to waste on politicking before launching it. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections resistant to antibiotics already kill at least 23,000 Americans each year and sicken more than 2 million people.
These figures come with a chilling caveat. “The estimates are based on conservative assumptions and are likely minimum estimates,’’ stated a 2013 CDC report. The economic costs are also alarming — around $35 billion in lost productivity and another $20 billion, or possibly more, in avoidable health care spending.
The campaign outlined by the president is a sensible one. Last fall, the White House Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a long report on steps needed to combat antibiotic resistance. The new proposal’s key recommendations clearly reflect the council’s expertise and its push for a multipronged approach to combating the problem.
Much of the funding, about $650 million, would go to the National Institutes of Health and another agency to dramatically expand research into new antibiotics and quicker diagnostics. Another $280 million would go the CDC to find ways to extend the potency of current antibiotics through better stewardship, as well as track antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance.
Another $77 million, a fourfold jump, would go to the Department of Agriculture, while some of the $47 million for the Food and Drug Administration would also boost antibiotic stewardship in agriculture.
Minnesota is home to world-class experts in infectious diseases who have long sounded the alarm about antibiotic resistance. State epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield praised the comprehensive approach outlined in the proposal, as well the clear priority put on this issue by the nation’s leadership.
Michael Osterholm, a well-known University of Minnesota infectious-disease expert, also called the proposal an important step forward. He emphasized that public investment is needed in new antibiotic development. The drugs are expensive and time-consuming to develop, yet typically are taken only for a short time and therefore are not as profitable as long-term medications.
“We are really moving more and more toward a future generation that will live in a post-antibiotic era,’’ Osterholm said. “Business as usual is not going to work.’’