How Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Went From Mildly Worrying To A Billion-Dollar Request In Obama’s Budget

From the sounds of things, the medical community might finally be getting an assist from the White House in dealing with one of the most significant public health challenges in recent memory. President Obama wants additional funding for antibiotics research, hoping to remedy a major, growing concern — the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a problem that is resulting in an increasingly harrowing number of infections and deaths each year.

The numbers are, simply put, pretty scary: an estimated 20,000 deaths by way of antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and a staggering financial toll on our health care system. This isn't the first time the White House has indicated they're taking this issue seriously, but it will require cooperation from the congressional GOP — Obama will reportedly request $1.2 billion in research funding in his budget proposal next week.

But when you compare that figure to the cost of inaction, it sure starts to seem a little futile. Frankly, even just considering the steep economic price of antibiotic resistance, that amount could reasonably be multiplied dozens of times over. According to Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these drug-resistant bugs are costing the U.S. about $20 billion annually. So, what's the problem, and how did we get here?

A History Of Antibiotic Overuse

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This isn't some new phenomenon, sad to say, as the medical community has been warning the public and government about this for years. Here's the basic idea: The more people rely on antibiotic drugs, either to prevent infections or to recover after they've fallen ill, the more typically treatable bacteria are able to adapt.

It's part of the reason that your doctor might encourage you to forgo antibiotic treatment if you're grappling with a common, non-serious infection. I myself decided to pass on antibiotics for a relatively minor sinus infection last year, for just this reason. Basically, the more we all collectively rely on these drugs, the less effective they become. They kill off the weaker, vulnerable bacteria, but might fail to finish off bacteria that have developed a resistance through repeated exposure.

And each time this happens — a killing-off of the weak, and the survival of the strong — the outcome is predictable. It's basically the law of evolution, playing out in disastrous fashion. Now, with many mainline antibiotics having been in widespread use for nearly 70 years, this problem is becoming exaggerated.

The Medical Community Sounds The Alarm

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There's a good chance you've heard about this issue before, because medical researchers and professionals have been urging caution and restraint in the use of antibiotics for a while now, for just this reason. Studies dating back to the 1990s laid the situation bare, detailing how complacency on the part of drug manufacturers and the public at large helped to fuel the crisis — people wrongly assumed these drugs would remain effective, ignoring entirely predictable, well-understood patterns of biological adaptation.

Ultimately, the situation became a self-fulfilling prophecy — people get sick more frequently because bacteria are getting more resistant to the treatment, resulting in yet more overuse of the treatment, resulting in even stronger bacteria. In July 2014, CDC director Frieden called this a possible pandemic that's "hiding in plain sight."

If we're not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. And in fact, for some patients and some pathogens, we're already there ... Antimicrobial resistance has the potential to harm or kill anyone in the country; to undermine modern medicine; to devastate our economy, and to make our health care system less stable.

President Obama Calls For Action

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It isn't surprising that the Obama administration is asking for this funding, considering that they'd already identified antibiotic resistance as a grave threat late last year. Amid the spate of executive orders the president signed last year, which so roiled conservatives and their accusations of "lawlessness," was one calling for the development of new antibiotics that could turn back the tide.

Nothing gets done without money, however, and that's what Obama is hoping to secure through his budget proposal. The sad reality, however, is that his budget is almost surely destined for failure — despite the federal deficit falling to the lowest levels of the Obama era, the GOP-controlled Congress is likely to vote it down in resounding fashion. In other words, there's a good chance things are going to get worse before they get better.

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