Signaling the seriousness of the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant germs, President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the government to create a national plan to fight them by early 2015.
"This is an urgent health threat and a threat to our economic stability as well," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as he joined two of Obama's scientific advisers to announce the steps.
Already the world is facing a situation where once-treatable germs can kill. Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to become resistant to the drug so that it is no longer effective in treating a particular illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant infections are linked to 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the United States annually. The impact to the U.S. economy is as high as $20 billion, the White House said, or more, if you count lost productivity from those who are sickened. And the problem is worsening.
Obama signed an executive order Thursday that would form a government task force and presidential advisory council on the issue, and he called for new regulations to make sure there is appropriate oversight of the use of antibiotics in hospitals. The orders also encourage better tracking of antibiotic use and the development of new antibiotics and tests.
Critics said they had hoped 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 sucessfully encouraged many drug companies to phase out the use of antibiotics used for animal growth promotion, but advocacy groups have called on them to limit other uses of animal antibiotics as well, such as for disease prevention when holding animals in crowded conditions.
"The overuse of antibiotics on the farm clearly affects human health, and substantial changes in the use of antibiotics in agricultural settings are necessary in order to preserve this precious resource for human medicine," said Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, a longtime advocate for limiting the use of antibiotics.
The executive order directs the FDA to "to continue taking steps to eliminate agricultural use of medically important antibiotics for growth-promotion purposes" but did not mention other uses.