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Pharmaceuticals

White House Targets Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Superbugs: Plan aims to curb deadly infections, promote drug discovery, diagnostics

by Britt E. Erickson
April 2, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 14

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Credit: CDC
Medical illustration of Clostridium difficile.Medical illustration of Clostridium difficile.
Medical illustration of Clostridium difficile
Credit: CDC
Medical illustration of Clostridium difficile.Medical illustration of Clostridium difficile.

The White House is ramping up its fight against drug-resistant bacteria with an aggressive new plan aimed at cutting in half the rate of the deadliest infections in the U.S. within five years.

The plan, released on March 27, seeks to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics on farms and in hospitals. It focuses on eliminating the use of antibiotics fed to farm animals to promote their growth. It condones, however, the routine use of antibiotics “to help animals survive crowded, stressful, and unsanitary confinement conditions,” says Mae Wu, program attorney at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

The White House also seeks to fund the discovery of new antibiotics to kill drug-resistant bacteria as well as the development of new diagnostics to quickly detect the deadly germs. These so-called superbugs are linked to an estimated 23,000 deaths and 2 million infections in the U.S. each year.

Called the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, the plan tasks the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to cut Clostridium difficile, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections by at least 50% by 2020. To do so, antibiotic prescribing practices in all health care settings need to be improved and the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in animals should be eliminated, the White House says.

Environmental groups and some congressional lawmakers are praising the plan’s initiatives related to detecting, tracking, and preventing drug-resistant infections. But they say it does not go far enough to curb the routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention in healthy farm animals.

About 80% of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in agriculture, mostly for disease prevention, points out Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). “Any meaningful solution to the looming antibiotic resistance crisis must begin with limits on the farm,” she says.

Pork producers have been “at the forefront of developing programs that ensure that antibiotics are being used responsibly,” claims Ron Prestage, president of the National Pork Producers Council. “Antibiotics are an important tool we use to keep our animals healthy and to produce safe food,” he notes. “We will continue to employ them for those purposes.”

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