Federal agencies engaged in the battle against deadly superbugs would get their biggest funding increase ever in the congressional spending deal unveiled this week. The budget blueprint would provide at least $375 million in new funds for the 2016 fiscal year to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one of the biggest health threats facing the United States and the rest of the world.
The funds would increase government spending on antibiotic resistance by about 57 percent compared to fiscal 2015, according to congressional budget documents.
The largest chunk, $160 million, would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to build and strengthen efforts by state and local health departments to prevent and monitor superbug outbreaks. The money would also bolster regional lab capability. The National Institutes of Health would get an increase of $100 million for research on combating antimicrobial resistance. Another agency, known as BARDA, which works on national preparedness for chemical and biological threats, would get an increase of $96 million to explore new therapies.
Officials at the agencies declined to comment until the spending plan is approved by Congress, which is expected by Friday.
But CDC Director Thomas Frieden has said the funds are needed to improve detection, control outbreaks and prevent new cases by improving prescribing patterns so that antibiotics are used only when necessary.
Helen Boucher, an infectious disease doctor in Boston and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said she was thrilled by the news.
"I think it's fair to say we're delighted to see resources being allocated to address the crisis we are in," said Boucher, who researches new antibiotics and also treats patients.
Scientists, doctors and other public health officials have increasingly warned that if antibiotic resistance were to continue at the current rate, routine infections eventually could become life-threatening. Common modern surgeries, such as knee replacements and organ transplants, could again become precarious. Vulnerable hospital patients and nursing-home residents could be at especially high risk for contracting deadly infections.
Boucher specializes in transplant-related infections. One recent patient, a young man with a family, developed a drug-resistant bacterial infection after a heart transplant. The only antibiotic left to treat him would have severely damaged his kidneys. All she could do was to send him to hospice, where he died soon after.
"We didn't have any options to treat him," she said.
Public health policy experts say the increase in new funding is significant in part because it is more than the House and Senate previously had planned on spending.
"It shows bipartisan support for funding the parts of government that can really make a difference in turning this around," said Elizabeth Jungman, director of the public health program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is leading an antibiotic-resistance project.
For several agencies, the proposed increases are spelled out. In the case of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is no line item for combating antibiotic resistance, but there is new funding for an existing animal and food research program that administration officials have said would support battling superbugs.
Experts said there needs to be a sustained financial commitment to really address the problem.
"It's a big deal, I totally agree, but I'm still a little shocked that it hasn't happened sooner," said Lance Price, a molecular epidemiologist and director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University's Milken Institute of Public Health.
He added: "I would hate for people to think that this is actually sufficient."
In particular, he noted that a "funding dead zone" tends to be research into the linkage between antibiotic use in food animal products and antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
In one of his research projects, Price has been sequencing the genomes of strains of E. coli collected from thousands of food products, including turkey, pork and chicken, and comparing their drug-resistance.