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White House announces plan to battle drug resistant bacteria

A school-aged child on Long Island has a

A school-aged child on Long Island has a confirmed case of enterovirus D68, a diagnosis that comes within days of the first New York cases that affected about a dozen upstate children, health officials said. Credit: iStock

The Obama administration has weighed in on the health crisis caused by drug-resistant bacteria, unveiling a national strategy to aggressively fight the microbes and calling for the production of new antibiotics.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Thursday asking key federal departments to aid in combating drug-resistant strains.

The new attack on antibiotic-resistant germs comes as scientists worldwide are warning that the so-called era of miracle drugs is fast coming to an end. Some have gone so far as to predict that some surgeries, such as total hip or knee replacements, organ transplants and several major forms of heart surgery would be impossible in a post-antibiotic world.

Those who clearly see a looming doomsday -- unless changes occur -- blame decades of antibiotic misuse and overuse, which have powered a Darwinian rise of superbugs.

The new strategy is vital, according to the White House, because the United States consumes more antibiotics than any other industrialized country in the world.

"If we don't work to preserve the power of antibiotics we could find ourselves back in time when simple infections are once again deadly," said Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for health care-associated infection prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An estimated 2 million people in the United States are infected annually with tough-to-fight strains and about 23,000 people die because of them. Aside from MRSA, which has become an infectious problem in schools, gyms and other places where people congregate, C. difficile -- C. diff -- has emerged as a spore-producing organism that can be life-threatening and tough to fight.

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"It's a war out there and you have to be proactive to gain the upper hand," said Dr. Joseph Laver, chief medical officer of Stony Brook University Hospital, referring to the emergence of superbugs. But he underscored the importance of practicing "antibiotic stewardship," or using the drugs only when medically necessary to maintain their effectiveness.

One key part of the new White House strategy is a directive aimed at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is urged to continue steps to eliminate agricultural use of antibiotics.

While the medications have been administered to sick animals -- as they should be -- the drugs also have long been used to promote animal growth, which has helped produce chickens that are more plump and, therefore, cost consumers more.

Another plank in the strategy is establishing a task force to be co-chaired by the secretaries of defense, agriculture, and Health and Human Services.

The plan also proposes new regulations to improve antibiotic stewardship programs, centering on the elimination of the misuse, abuse and overuse of the drugs.

"This is one of our most pressing global public health threats, one I see every day in practice," Dr. Jesse Goodman, director of the Center on Medical Product Access, Safety and Stewardship at Georgetown University said yesterday.

Goodman said drug resistance is not just an American problem, but a global one because resistant bugs spread quickly from one region to another.

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