WASHINGTON -- The White House on Friday announced a five-year plan to fight the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria amid fears that once-treatable germs could become increasingly deadly.
Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to develop resistance to the drugs, making these life-saving treatments no longer effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses each year in the United States.
The World Health Organization said last year that bacteria resistant to antibiotics have spread to every part of the world and might lead to a future where minor infections could kill.
In an interview with WebMD, President Barack Obama called it "one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today."
"Studies have consistently shown that a lot of America's antibiotic use is unnecessary," he said. He said he hopes his plan will create a system to show real-time rates of antibiotic use and where cases of drug resistance are being reported. "If we can see where these drugs are being over-prescribed, we can target our interventions where they're needed most."
The president said the effectiveness of antibiotics is a matter of national security. "They save the lives of service members wounded in battle. They prevent infections in one community from spreading far and wide. They're also a critical defense against bio-terrorism. They are, quite simply, essential to the health of our people and people everywhere. So we should do everything in our power to ensure that antibiotics remain effective," he said.
The White House plan is the result of an order Obama signed in September forming a task force on the issue. Obama also has asked Congress to nearly double its funding to fight antibiotic resistance to $1.2 billion. Some of that money would be allocated to help develop a new generation of antibiotics.
The plan would also increase funding to the Department of Agriculture to improve practices involving the use of antibiotics in livestock. The drugs are widely used to protect animals in factory farms from disease and to encourage faster growth, but experts say that contributes to the development of drug-resistant germs, threatening human health as well as animal welfare, agriculture, and the economy.
Critics say they wish the White House would go further, particularly in terms of the antibiotics used in animals processed for meat. The Food and Drug Administration has already successfully encouraged many drug companies to phase out the use of antibiotics used for animal growth promotion, but advocacy groups have called on the agency to limit other uses of animal antibiotics as well, such as for disease prevention when holding animals in crowded conditions.
"The plan continues to allow the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals that live in the crowded conditions endemic to industrial farms," said Mae Wu, health attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Our government should be taking steps to reduce antibiotics to protect our health, rather than protecting poor industry practices."