“Controlling the spread and development of antibiotic resistance is a top national security and public health priority for this administration,” said Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during a Thursday press briefing.
The plan was announced along with the release of a new report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PDF), which contains eight recommendations for specific actions the task force can include as part of its efforts.
“Overall I think it's an encouraging set of recommendations in the report,” said Dr. Henry Chambers, chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's Antimicrobial Resistance Committee.
While most credit the administration's initiative as a good first step toward addressing the issue of antibiotic-resistant infections, others say it still misses out on key concerns regarding the overuse of existing drugs.
One area in particular involves the continued widespread use of medically important antibiotics in animal production. Last December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines that called for drugmakers to voluntarily remove references to animal production in antibiotics deemed medically important to humans. Such a move would effectively ban livestock owners from using antibiotics without a prescription.
For years, owners have injected animals with antibiotics for the purpose of increasing their growth, which public health advocates have argued has increased the risk for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria to develop.
“The recommendations just rely on an FDA voluntary guidance that ignores one of the largest uses of antibiotics in animals,” said Mae Wu, an attorney in the Health and Environment Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
According to Wu, livestock owners can still use antibiotics for livestock under the premise that they're using it to prevent the onset of disease. About 70% of medically important antibiotics are sold for food animals, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. According to the FDA, nearly 30 million pounds of such drugs were sold in the U.S. in 2011 for the purpose of meat and poultry production.
“Currently the guidelines are voluntary,” Chambers said. “I would like to see something that was more along the lines of regulatory, leading to discontinuing antibiotics as growth promoters, and use them only for treating infections or for preventing infections when there are outbreaks.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 2 million infections each year are related to antibiotic resistance, resulting in 23,000 deaths. Health costs associated with treatment of such illnesses have been estimated at around $20 billion annually.
While use of antibiotics in livestock remains a concern, Allan Coukell, senior director for drugs and medical devices for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the issuing of the executive order was a significant move that should not be overlooked.
“To have the issue prioritized at this level and to initiate the kind of actions that they're talking about is an unprecedented step,” Coukell said. “Obviously today is announcing the start of a process, and the follow-through and the execution is really going to matter.”
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