WHITE HOUSE - Peggy Lillis thought she had a stomach virus. But the New York mother had contracted a clostridium difficile-related infection and died in a matter of days. C. difficile is one of the fastest growing superbugs.

Fifteen-year-old Nile Moss of California was hospitalized for routine tests. Days later, he died of pneumonia caused by methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, also known as the “hospital superbug.”

Joshua Nahum was hospitalized for a sky-diving accident; he was on his way to recovery but died of a gram-negative infection he contracted in the hospital, for which there are very few or no antibiotics.

Family members of all three listened as U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden spoke about their loved ones and outlined the risks associated with improper use or lack of viable antibiotics during Tuesday’s White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship.

In the case of Lillis, antibiotics prescribed after a routine dental procedure had likely killed off the beneficial bacteria in her gut, making her more susceptible to C. difficile. The CDC estimates about 50 percent of all antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, raising the risk for C. difficile infections.

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics leads to bacteria that no longer respond to the medicines. The CDC estimates such drug-resistant bacteria cause two million illnesses and some 23,000 deaths each year in the United States alone.

“If we don’t take better care of the antibiotics that we have today, if we are not better stewards of them, we can lose these antibiotics and the next ones that come along,” said Dr. Frieden. “If we lose antibiotics, we undermine our ability to safely care for the 600,000 Americans who get cancer chemotherapy each year, patients who need organ transplantation, or many of the things that are routine in modern medicine.”

The CDC director said without proper stewardship, “we risk turning back the clock to when simple infections could kill.”

President Barack Obama talks about antibiotic-resi
President Barack Obama talks about antibiotic-resistant bacteria as he meets with members of the his Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, March 27, 2015, at the White House in Washington.

Combating resistance

U.S. President Barack Obama has made tackling antibiotic-resistant bacteria a top priority of his administration, launching a five-year, $120 billion national action plan in March that doubles the amount of funding for combating the threat in the 2016 proposed federal budget.

Obama’s plan calls for increased surveillance to monitor potential outbreaks in humans and animals, diagnostic testing to identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria and accelerated research to develop new antibiotics and vaccines.

On Tuesday, the White House brought together more than 150 food companies, retailers, health care systems, and drug makers to discuss steps that can be taken to limit the use of antibiotics, whether prescribed by doctors, given to livestock or added to animal feed.

Tyson Foods, Inc. has pledged to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its broiler chicken flocks by September of 2017. U.S. retail giant Walmart is asking its food suppliers to use antibiotics judiciously with veterinary oversight, to treat and prevent disease in animals and not for growth promotion.

Walmart’s Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas said transparency leads to accountability.

“We are asking our suppliers to work with us to promote transparency in how antibiotics are being used in the food system. We have asked our suppliers to report to us on an annual basis how they are using antibiotics, how much they are using and for what purposes,” said Yiannas during a morning session at the White House Forum for Antibiotic Stewardship.

Utah-based nonprofit Intermountain Healthcare said it would reduce inappropriate outpatient antibiotic use for upper respiratory conditions by half by 2020, and ensure all of its hospitals have antimicrobial stewardship programs by the end of 2017.

Starting with the government

Ahead of the forum, President Obama on Tuesday signed an executive memorandum that directs all federal agencies to ensure the meat and poultry served in their cafeterias is produced according to responsible antibiotic-use policies.

President Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco said Tuesday, the government was taking a number of steps to lead the charge on combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including making sure veterans’ hospitals and other federal facilities were following CDC guidelines.

Monaco said the single most important step to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria was reducing the frequency of antibiotic use.

“With all the challenges we are facing around the world - from terrorism to cyber threats to natural disasters - slow-burning crises like the rise of antibiotic bacteria don’t always get the front page attention that they deserve,” Monaco said.

“But this is a serious risk to the health and security of people everywhere. And we all have to take steps to improve the way we are using antibiotics today so they will in fact be effective when we truly need them in the future.”