After his exceptional career as a heart surgeon, Dr. Vivek Murthy resigned from his position as the nation’s health agency’s top surgeon general in December to focus on writing and speaking out about the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. That terrifying threat is so large, it’s already the top-prioritized topic of a new alarm in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Friday, Murthy released a new report on the threat, warning that the problem is so grave that it could cause a deadly public health crisis. The report looks at the growing problem of drug-resistant diseases, and claims it is already afflicting billions of people and costing untold billions of dollars every year.
In 2009, the CDC’s in-house research branch declared that its previous estimates were too conservative. It deemed the cost of antimicrobial resistance from antibiotics to cancer treatment to penicillin to as close as 1987 a close to $1 trillion.
But Murthy says the real costs are much, much higher. “If you add up the federal fiscal costs of antimicrobial resistance, it adds up to about $200 billion in annual health care and economic costs, which is the equivalent of a $10,000 per person tax increase on America’s middle-class families,” Murthy said at a press briefing in Washington, D.C. on Friday.
Those numbers are part of the compelling reason Murthy stepped down as surgeon general. With the worsening health-care costs of American antibiotics, he says that there’s a bigger mission.
“I will continue to advocate for research, protection and wise use of antibiotics, to stop antibiotic resistance, protect people and save lives,” Murthy said. “I believe that’s a larger priority and a much bigger mission than the immediate, often emotional issues at hand. And I have decided that my future endeavors should be aligned with that larger vision.”
In his report, Murthy discusses both the way antimicrobial resistance threatens to wipe out the world’s major antibiotics, making humans useless to each other in case of emergencies, and why overuse of antibiotics is affecting the ability of bacteria in humans and animals to grow.
And while the United States is taking steps to keep its antibiotics used for human medical purposes out of people’s food supply, the recommended use of antibiotics in animals could have terrible consequences.
Americans eat about 50 pounds of livestock per person every year. But that meat isn’t obtained through an animal’s natural digestive system – rather, its life is at the mercy of any number of growth-promoting drugs and antibiotics are fed to them before they’re slaughtered.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough,” Murthy said. He said that while it’s “right to do everything we can to make sure that medicine works in a non-anti-microbial way,” continued drug consumption would greatly increase the country’s long-term health-care burden.
“The decade ahead will also see some important laws and legislation being enacted,” Murthy said. He said that new rules should be set in place to strictly prevent the overuse of antibiotics in veterinary medicine, but also that he wants the CDC and others agencies to focus on building stronger partnerships with doctors and veterinarians in case antibiotics are required by law.