CDC budget cuts threaten the fight against ‘superbugs’

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Centers for Disease Control

Under a very high magnification, a strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Why are President Trump’s proposed cuts to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) such a bad idea? One big reason is that they are on the forefront of what Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC Director, rightly called “one of our most serious health threats” — killer antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A 2013 CDC report found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a.k.a. “superbugs,” infect millions of Americans per year and kill at least 23,000 of us annually. Four years later, experts say those numbers have likely grown.

Losing effective antibiotics as a tool in medicine —a somber reality in some cases already— means common infections will once again kill, and medical advancements like cancer treatment, routine surgeries, and organ transplants become much more dangerous.

So, the CDC should, if anything, increase spending to address the “superbug” crisis, yet the President’s proposed budget would result in a 17 percent cut.

The CDC uses its funding in three key ways to address antibiotic resistance: detecting and responding quickly to superbug outbreaks, implementing better protocols to prevent infections from superbugs, and improving antibiotic stewardship to keep the bugs from becoming “super” in the first place.

Much of the funding at stake goes to state-specific initiatives that help prevent a local or statewide disease outbreak from becoming a national epidemic.

In Fiscal Year 2016, Connecticut received a total of $2,411,720 from the CDC through its initiatives on antibiotic resistance. For example, the money Connecticut received last year went to four major programs, including Yale’s Microbiome Assessment and Intervention program, and the Emerging Infections Program.

Identifying and containing a disease outbreak has serious implications for public health. MRSA is an antibiotic resistant bacteria that can have lethal consequences, especially for patients with weakened immune systems. Last April the LA Times reported on a MRSA outbreak at the UC Irvine Medical Center. As doctors struggled to find the source of the infections, the outbreak continued to spread, eventually infecting ten infants who were already seriously ill.

In a different case, a Nevada woman recently died from an infection that health experts have deemed the “nightmare bacteria,” known in shorthand as CRE. That’s because this particular form of bacteria was resistant to every antibiotic available in the U.S.

Whether it’s a MRSA infection, or the “nightmare bacteria,” it is critical for health authorities to be able to identify the particular type of bacteria causing the illness so that they can properly treat it, if possible, and contain its spread.

The CDC’s programs give state and regional health departments the kind of state of the art technology needed to detect, track, and contain a superbug. Without it, they’d be flying blind in responding to an outbreak, which would put more lives at risk.

Perhaps more important than containing a dangerous outbreak is getting at the root cause of what fuels drug-resistant bacteria. The overuse of antibiotics in any setting makes the drugs less effective. CDC’s programs include efforts to track antibiotic use in healthcare settings and cut down on inappropriate use that may be breeding drug-resistant bacteria. Funding cuts to antibiotic stewardship efforts will be a major setback in preventing the spread of superbugs.

So, as President Trump and budget negotiators in the House and Senate move forward with the budget process, they should keep in mind that what’s at stake is the health and safety of our loved ones.

We certainly cannot afford to lose any resources in the fight to combat antibiotic resistance. A wiser course would be to invest more in the fight to keep our antibiotics working.

Kate Cohen is the State Director of ConnPIRG, and Dr. Nicholas Bennett, Co-Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

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