Obama unveils $1.2B plan to tackle drug-resistant bacteria

Obama unveils $1.2B plan to tackle drug-resistant bacteria
© Greg Nash

President Obama on Friday announced a long-awaited national plan to combat the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which he called one of the world’s “most pressing” public health crises.

It is the first White House plan to specifically address antibiotic resistance, which causes 2 million illnesses a year in the United States and 23,000 deaths.

The aggressive effort would require $1.2 billion from Congress in its first year, which is double the country's current spending. 

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"There are parts of this plan that we can implement on our own right now, and wherever we can act without Congress, we will. But to get the whole job done, we need Congress to step up," Obama said in an interview with WebMD published Friday.

Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spoke to members of Congress this week and urged them to fund the program.

“The risk is that we could be in a post-antibiotic era,” Frieden said in an interview with The Hill. “I think there is clear bipartisan support for doing more for antibiotic resistance.”

Federal agencies will be tasked with combating the misuse of antibiotics, both in human patients and in animals, as well as strengthening the infection-control practices that are used by health providers across the country.

Frieden said the funding for CDC specifically — an increase of $264.3 million — could help every state develop a prevention program, which could prevent 600,000 infections and $8 billion in medical costs.

“We’re seeing an increase in drug-resistant organisms that are affecting every community and getting worse and worse and are at risk, really to undermine much of modern medicine,” Frieden said.

The president’s $1.2 billion funding request is not included in the recently passed Republican budgets in the House and Senate, though the two will now head to a conference committee where changes could still be made.   

“We realize this is an area of active discussion in Congress, and we want to make sure Congress knows they have the ability to save lives now,” an administration official said.

With the new dollars, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would begin developing new antibiotics and tests while the Department of Agriculture would begin reducing irresponsible use of antibiotics in livestock.

The new guidelines will likely put heavy pressure on the agriculture industry to reduce antibiotic use, though administration officials said they have not yet set reduction targets for farms.

The lack of targets has already drawn criticism from a nonprofit group called Keep Antibiotics Working, which warned that “the only measure of success will be whether or not companies remove growth claims from the labels — even if on-farm antibiotic use continues to rise.”

The newly released plan is the result of months-long discussions by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Oversight of the efforts will now be handed off to the newly created Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which will include up to 30 members managed by HHS.

Tackling antibiotic resistance has been a major goal for the Obama administration, which, last fall, outlined a five-year roadmap to tackling the problem and directed federal agencies to step up their efforts.

Obama said Friday that with 4 in 5 Americans receiving prescriptions for antibiotics every year, he wants to promote "more judicious" use of the drugs.

“We really need to act now. Inaction is going to compound what is already a serious and growing problem,” an administration official said Friday.