For years, medical experts have been warning that the rise of antibiotic resistance poses a serious threat to global health, as we’re rapidly approaching a future in which common infections won’t be able to be treated with any drugs. And this week, the White House finally made its first major policy move to help address the issue.
On Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a new task force for combating drug-resistant bacteria. The members will be tasked with coming up with a five-year plan to prevent the rise of antibiotic resistance, as well as to effectively respond to disease outbreaks that involve hard-to-treat bacteria.
The Obama administration has drawn some criticism for failing to do enough to combat antibiotic resistance, which leads to 23,000 deaths each year. Advocates say that the White House has been too slow to act to address a problem that doesn’t often capture the national headlines but that has been described as a “ticking time bomb” and a looming “antibiotic apocalypse.”
The executive order coincided with a 65-page report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that confirms this issue is being worsened by the over-use of antibiotics in both humans and animals, which can allow bacteria to adapt and become resistant to the common drugs typically used to treat them.
“Success in combating antibiotic resistance will require elevating the issue to a national priority,” the report states. “The crisis in antibiotic resistance comes as no surprise: it has been brewing for decades, despite urgent calls from medical experts dating back as far as the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, the issue has only just begun to seize the public attention, due to increasing high rates of resistant pathogens in healthcare facilities.”
Public health groups are glad to see the White House turning its attention to the area. On a call with reporters, one of the co-chairmen of PCAST noted that the executive order “represents a major elevation of the issue — a major upgrading of the administration’s efforts to help address it.”
“We’ve been like a frog in the pot as the water heats up,” Allan Coukell, the senior director for drugs and medical devices at Pew Charitable Trusts, added in an interview with the New York Times. “Now the administration is saying we can’t keep going like this, that we have to tackle this crisis, and here’s a road map.”
But some critics say the new initiatives don’t go far enough to curb antibiotic use in the agriculture sector, where as many as 90 percent of the drugs used on animals aren’t tested to assess their risk of creating superbugs. While the Food and Drug Administration has made some moves to regulate the use of antibiotics in farm animals, the guidelines are largely voluntary and advocates worry that big food companies will be able to easily get around them. The new executive order doesn’t take any stronger of a stance.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) — who has introduced legislation that would limit the types of antibiotics that can be given to animals, as well as pressured major fast food companies to disclose what types of drugs they’re using in their products — is urging the federal government to do more. In a statement released on Thursday, the congresswoman argued that failing to crack down on the agricultural industry is a potentially dangerous oversight.
“I maintain that voluntarily asking industry to change labels is not enough to protect human health,” Slaughter said. “Not only does it give industry two more years to begin complying, it leaves a loophole a mile wide for using antibiotics daily to prevent disease when they are clearly only meant for treatment. I call once again on Congress to take up my bill.”