Fight 'superbugs' by developing targeted weapons

Marine Lance Corporal Johnathan Gadsden survived a roadside bomb exploding under his Humvee in Iraq.  He survived airlifts to military hospitals in Baghdad and Germany, and to the National Naval Hospital in Maryland, where he was treated for his injuries. Yet just when his family thought he might be headed towards recovery, he lost his battle with an invisible enemy: multidrug-resistant infections that stopped his heart. 

He was 20 years old.

Often called “superbugs,” multidrug-resistant bacteria are a growing threat in the United States and worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.  These infections cause at least 23,000 deaths and result in a staggering burden to the nation’s healthcare system—up to $20 billion annually in direct healthcare costs.

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Superbugs are a threat to all of us, but the toll they take on our active duty and veteran communities is particularly troubling.  Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, our military health systems have advanced thanks to speedy evacuation and cutting-edge medical technology.  Wounds that were once fatal can now be survived, and many injured soldiers go on to lead healthy and productive lives.  But for Corporal Gadsden and too many others, grave wounds received in battle are rendering soldiers vulnerable to drug-resistant infections. 

The threat is growing.  Pathogens continue to develop resistance to existing drugs, and there are too few new antibiotics in the research and development pipeline.  Doctors are running out of treatment options for infections, which—though once curable—have since become deadly. 

Our nation devotes technology and treasure to provide soldiers in warfare with advanced weapons and the means to protect themselves and our allies.  Just as we give our soldiers the tools to fight enemies abroad and defend us at home, we must arm our healthcare system with new weapons to combat the unseen enemy of drug-resistant superbugs.

I’m heartened to see that there is desire in both the House and the Senate to address this problem. In the house, Reps. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and Gene Green (D-Texas) have introduced the The Antibiotic Development to Advance Patient Treatment, or ADAPT, Act  which would allow the Food and Drug Administration to approve new antibiotics limited to patients who have run out of options.  The pathway would allow clinical trials with fewer patients than conventional studies require, and help lower drug development costs.  Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have also expressed an interest in this kind of a pathway in a letter to the FDA Commissioner last year. 

Corporal Gadsden’s story is heartbreaking, but tragically not an isolated incident.   Many more like him, soldiers and civilians, have lost their lives because we do not have the drugs we need.  It’s time to mount an urgent defense against superbugs, and use every tool at our disposal to put new weapons on the field.

Carey is national chairman of The Flag & General Officers’ Network.