Opinion

Getting Smart is a Group Effort: Addressing the Crisis of Antibiotic Resistance

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Nicole Mahoney

By Nicole Mahoney, The Pew Charitable Trusts

More and more, we hear about drug-resistant bacteria—superbugs that few, if any, available therapies can kill. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, released a report warning that infections from these pathogens result in at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths every year in the United States.

This week, CDC is spreading the word about what patients can do to curb the threat of drug resistance. In observance of Get Smart About Antibiotics Week, the agency is emphasizing steps the public can take to prevent antibiotic-resistant infections and to slow the evolution of new strains of resistant bacteria. But Congress also needs to act in the fight against superbugs.

Emergence of these bacteria is outpacing development of new drugs.  Even if all patients used antibiotics appropriately—taking the full course when prescribed and avoiding them for viral illnesses such as the common cold—drug resistance would remain an issue.

As a recent Frontline documentary on “nightmare bacteria” admonishes, even healthy people are at risk. Their stories demonstrate the pressing need for action on all fronts to address resistance. And we have been making progress.

Last year, President Barack Obama signed the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now, or GAIN, Act into law as part of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. This bipartisan legislation increases the commercial value of antibiotics intended for serious or life-threatening infections through a five-year extension of the period during which the drugs can be sold without generic competition.

GAIN is an important first step to promote the development of novel antibiotics, but we're still losing the race.  Too many people are contracting drug-resistant infections that physicians cannot treat.

We need legislation to streamline clinical testing and regulatory approval—two of the main challenges to development of antibiotics that patients need the most.  

To meet this challenge, The Pew Charitable Trusts and other organizations are advocating for limited population antibacterial drug legislation, which would speed approval of drugs for patients who have serious or life-threatening infections and limited treatment options. Bipartisan interest in this legislation has been expressed in the House and Senate.

Helping patients "get smart" about antibiotics is an important part of the overall effort to curb the threat of superbugs. Congressional leaders must complement the CDC's public education efforts with action to help make new drugs available to physicians as quickly and safely as possible.

Nicole Mahoney is the senior officer for Pew's antibiotics and innovation project, which addresses the growing public health challenge of multidrug-resistant infections by supporting policies that stimulate and encourage the development of antibiotics to treat life-threatening illnesses.