This week's White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship was a landmark event. The Forum spotlighted more than 150 unprecedented Federal and private-sector commitments that will help preserve antibiotic effectiveness by reducing the unnecessary uses that promote resistance in human and animal pathogens. These important commitments will help save lives and reduce suffering.
President Obama also signed a memorandum committing Federal departments and agencies to create a preference for meat and poultry produced according to responsible antibiotic-use policies. In addition, the Presidential Food Service has committed to serving meats and poultry that have been produced without antibiotics.
The Forum was an important event in my tenure at the White House because in addition to being central to my scientific identity as a bacteriologist, the Forum also meant a lot to me personally.
You see, in 2001, just two months before the world was changed by 9/11, my world was changed by my mother's death. She lost her battle with bacteria after years of fighting infections that nibbled away at her lungs, diminishing her ability to breathe. My mother was one of a small group of otherwise healthy, middle-aged, American women who inexplicably lose part of their immune function, making them susceptible to infections that other people can defeat. When she first became ill, there were 50 women with the condition; by the time she died 16 years later, thousands more had been identified.
Over the years, bacteria took up residence in my mother's lungs, periodically flaring into full-blown infections that demanded escalating antibiotic therapy. The cycle created ideal conditions for development of antibiotic-resistant populations -- each round of antibiotics selected for resistant bacterial mutants that flourished in the presence of the antibiotic. As my mother's physicians switched antibiotics, the bacteria that survived were increasingly likely to carry resistance to multiple drugs, making the infections increasingly recalcitrant to treatment. Eventually, there were no more antibiotics, and in 2001, the bacteria won.
I will always be grateful for the years I had my mother that were made possible by antibiotics. Every successful round of treatment reminded me how lucky we were to live in the late 20th century, after antibiotics had become a routine part of medical care. I came to covet these wonder drugs on which my mother's life depended, and became increasingly aware of how we must protect them. I imagined that anyone who had experienced the relief of seeing antibiotics in action – a relief proportional to the depth of suffering caused by bacterial infections – would recognize their value. And that anyone who had seen bacteria and antibiotics battle it out up close would treasure antibiotics and preserve their efficacy at all costs.
So for me, the steps by the public and private sectors this week to protect antibiotics and preserve their power to treat infectious disease and save lives are particularly important. This week’s Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship was an important step in protecting our remaining store of antibiotics from abuse and overuse. On behalf of everyone who will benefit from the antibiotics whose efficacy will be preserved by diminished use on farms or in hospitals – thank you for your work on this lifesaving issue.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.