WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday announced a five-year plan to fight the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria amid fears that once-treatable germs could become deadly.
Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to become resistant to the drugs, so that they are no longer effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses each year in the United States.
The World Health Organization said last year that bacteria resistant to antibiotics have spread to every part of the world and might lead to a future where minor infections like strep throat could kill. Antibiotic resistance also threatens animal health, agriculture and the economy.
President Barack Obama, who ordered the plan, said drug-resistant bacteria are one of the most serious public health issues.
"This is one of those problems that doesn't always rise to the top of people's day-to-day concerns until somebody in the family is impacted," Obama told reporters before meeting privately Friday with members of his advisory council on science and technology. "We take antibiotics for granted for a lot of illnesses that can be deadly or debilitating."
"If we start seeing those medicines diminish in effectiveness, we're going to have problems," he said.
The White House's overall goal is to prevent and contain outbreaks of infections at home and abroad. It's aiming to maintain the ability of current antibiotics to fight illnesses and develop new treatments.
The plan is the result of an order Obama signed in September forming a task force on the issue. Obama also has asked Congress to nearly double its funding to fight antibiotic resistance to $1.2 billion.
Critics said the White House needs to go further, particularly in terms of the antibiotics used in animals processed for meat. The Food and Drug Administration has already successfully encouraged many drug companies to phase out the use of antibiotics used for animal growth promotion. But advocacy groups have called on the agency to limit other uses of animal antibiotics as well, such as for disease prevention when holding animals in crowded conditions.
"Once again, the administration has fallen woefully short of taking meaningful action to curb the overuse of antibiotics in healthy food animals," said New York Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, a microbiologist who has sponsored legislation to stop routine antibiotic use in animal farming.
"With 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States being used in agriculture mostly for prevention, any meaningful solution to the looming antibiotic resistance crisis must begin with limits on the farm — and trusting a voluntary policy that lets industry police itself will not bring about real change," she said.