Dr. Martin Blaser, an NYU professor of microbiology, has been nominated to participate in and chair the President’s Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. The purpose of the group is to reduce and control antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so that current antibiotics work better.
Blaser is a specialist in infectious diseases with more than 30 years of experience in the field. Currently, he heads NYU’s Human Microbiome Program at the NYU School of Medicine.
The committee held its first meeting on Sept. 29. Several federal agencies — including the Department of State, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security — presented their progress on the project over the past six months to the panel, and President Obama also requested a 180-day report on potential actions to combat antibiotic resistance.
WSN: What is your role in the Advisory Council, and how did you come about this opportunity?
MB: The Obama Administration decided that antibiotic resistance should be a priority, because it’s increasing in the U.S. and all over the world. This means that some of our great antibiotics aren’t working anymore. Some people are dying from infections when they shouldn’t be. The number is in the thousands, and we don’t want it to be in the hundreds of thousands. The President set up a task force and an outside panel, called the President’s Advisory Council for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. There was a call for nominations about six months ago. Some colleagues nominated me. One day I got a phone call, and they said, “What are you doing on Sept. 29?” The panel has 15 voting members, representing very accomplished people with expertise in a number of different areas. It’s the accumulation of a career working on something.
WSN: While on this council, what do you hope to achieve?
MB: The government is setting up programs to deal with many different aspects of it: what is causing antibiotic resistance, understanding how many antibiotics are being used, educating doctors to use less antibiotics, educating patients to demand antibiotics less, coming up with new antibiotics to replace the ones that are resistant, changing some of our strategies with antibiotic usage from broad spectrum antibiotics to narrow spectrum antibiotics and coming up with better diagnostics. When somebody’s sick, we should know if they have a viral infection that doesn’t require antibiotics or if they have a bacterial infection that does. Doctors are treating people as though all of them have bacterial infections, when mostly they don’t. What we do know is that in Sweden, they are using 40 percent of the antibiotics we are using in the United States per capita at every age. They’re using antibiotics more effectively than we are; we have to learn how to do that.
WSN: What do you believe is the cause of the current problem?
MB: Part of it is that doctors are afraid if they don’t give an antibiotic, they’ll be sued. Parents are afraid that if they don’t get the antibiotic, their child will die. So the question is: how can we improve judgment? That requires education of doctors, medical students, and the public to understand antibiotics are not free. In fact, that’s why I wrote a book: “Missing Microbes,” because my book is directed toward the general public.
WSN: Is there a specific scale that doctors can use for this decision?
MB: That’s what’s called clinical judgment. That’s what we learned in medical school. Two generations have grown up thinking antibiotics are free, and there would be no consequences, but we’re learning there would be more and more consequences. When Henry Ford improved the internal combustion engine to make cars, he didn’t imagine that every time you turn your ignition on, the ice cap in Greenland would melt a little, but we now know that that’s basically true. That’s the law of unintended consequences.
WSN: What do you expect the timeline to be to complete the ultimate task of reducing the use of antibiotics?
MB: That’s a question that’s impossible to answer, because it depends. In some areas, we only need a 10 percent reduction. In some areas, we need a 50 percent reduction. The short answer is: we don’t know yet. The people on the committee have assignments ranging from two to four years, and we hope to make substantial progress during that time.
Email Farhin Lilywala at [email protected]