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Global Health Thought Leadership

Misuse of antibiotics is paving the way for disaster in Georgia.

By Maria Thacker Goethe

Antibiotics have been our most effective treatment for infectious diseases for the better part of a century, and they continue to be effective in many circumstances. However, bacteria are catching up to the cure, and innovation for new treatments hasn’t kept up with their evolution. This is resulting in bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics currently available – we call these superbugs.

The process by which a bacterium becomes a superbug is called antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR occurs when germs like bacteria and fungi change over time and develop the ability to resist the medicines designed to target them, making infections harder to treat, and increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness, and death. 

Though inevitable, overuse and misuse of antibiotics has hastened the creation of new superbugs. The COVID pandemic accelerated this problem even more, with about 80% of COVID patients receiving antibiotics early in the pandemic. 

One thing that we’ve learned during the pandemic is that complications related to AMR are multiplied by structural inequities and socioeconomic factors such as household income, type of housing (crowding, persons experiencing homelessness), immigration, type of health insurance, access to health care, and education level.

Georgia has considerable health disparities between communities, and Atlanta is the number one city for income inequality in America according to the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative. A major outbreak of resistant infections can greatly exacerbate the health inequities that exist here. 

As AMR spirals out of control, Georgians in racial and ethnic minority communities, rural and low-income urban communities, and those with disabilities and chronic mental illness all experience worse health and worse opportunities for health than their peers. A superbug can put these populations at greater risk for more severe complications. 

Investing in solutions and policies to combat AMR can pay huge dividends for curbing the formation and spread of new superbugs in underserved communities. We need to act now because, according to the CDC, AMR is one of the most concerning health threats we face. In the United States, more than 2.8 million antimicrobial-resistant infections occur each year, leading to over 35,000 deaths.

There is no miracle cure for AMR, but we can limit its medical and economic impact through strong public health and prevention measures, extensive medical surveillance, and robust pharmaceutical innovation.

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently enough innovation taking place in medical research to address AMR, and the current antimicrobial treatments we have available were not developed to treat newly resistant strains, not to mention, the pipeline of new antimicrobials needed to stem the tide of AMR has been on the decline. Our drug development landscape is facing the perfect storm of innovation crippling factors. Biopharmaceutical companies are not equipped to shoulder the colossal financial risk that comes with researching a new drug that may or may not yield the desired results. At the same time, insurers have throttled the market for new antimicrobials because of financial incentives to keep encouraging the use of older, less costly antibiotics.

Due to these challenges, many biopharmaceutical research companies have declared bankruptcy in recent years or exited the antibiotic development field. While some federal policies have helped reform the antibiotic research and development (R&D) ecosystem, additional policy reforms are still needed to create a more sustainable environment for antimicrobial R&D and commercialization.

The PASTEUR Act is one such policy. If enacted, this bipartisan bill would ensure a minimum return on investment for effective new antimicrobials, meaning drugmakers can afford to pursue them. Additionally, the PASTEUR Act would set up a drug subscription model for federal healthcare programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, that financially incentivizes prescribing fewer common, increasingly obsolete antibiotics. This would help curb overuse of antibiotics, reduce the chance for bacteria to develop resistances and save federal healthcare dollars.

The PASTEUR Act is a sensible, affordable, win-win policy that can help us address tomorrow’s health problems today. The Center for Global Health Innovation encourages all Georgians to urge their elected members of congress to support this bill.

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Maria Thacker Goethe is the CEO of the Center for Global Health Innovation (CGHI). CGHI is a 501(c)(3) organization that was launched in January 2020 to bring together diverse Global Health, Health Technology, and Life Sciences entities to collaborate, innovate and activate solutions to enhance health outcomes around the world. Follow CGHI on Twitter (@Center4Global) and on Facebook and LinkedIn

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