WASHINGTON – On Sept. 18, President Barack Obama ordered the US government to create a national plan to fight antibiotic-resistant germs by early 2015, signaling the seriousness of the threat posed by them, The Associated Press reported.

"This is an urgent health threat and a threat to our economic stability as well," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as he joined two of Obama's scientific advisers in announcing the steps.

Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to become resistant to drugs so that it is no longer effective in treating a particular illness, AP relayed. CDC reports that antibiotic-resistant infections are linked to 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the US each year. The White House claimed the impact to the US economy is as high as $20 billion or more, if including lost productivity from those who become ill.

The executive order Obama signed today would form a government task force and presidential advisory council to focus on the issue. The president called for new regulations to ensure there is appropriate oversight of the use of antibiotics in hospitals. Better tracking of antibiotic use and the development of new antibiotics and tests are also being encouraged by the orders.

Critics, however, wanted the White House to go even further, particularly regarding antibiotic use in animals processed for meat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already successfully encouraged many drug companies to phase out use of antibiotics used for animal growth promotion, but advocacy groups demanded they limit other uses of animal antibiotics as well, such as for disease prevention when holding animals in crowded conditions.

"The overuse of antibiotics on the farm clearly affects human health, and substantial changes in the use of antibiotics in agricultural settings are necessary in order to preserve this precious resource for human medicine," said Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, a longtime advocate for limiting the use of antibiotics.

FDA is being directed by this executive order "to continue taking steps to eliminate agricultural use of medically important antibiotics for growth-promotion purposes.”

“We appreciate the White House’s careful look at the complex issue of antibiotic resistance and we share the view that antibiotics are assets to human and veterinary medicine that should be used thoughtfully and appropriately,” responded Betsy Booren, Ph.D., American Meat Institute (AMI) vice president of scientific affairs “The recommendations that have been shared echo what the CDC conveyed last year – that you cannot attack a complex problem in a simple manner and that we must employ a multi-faceted solution. Our industry certainly plays a role in that solution, along with the medical community and others. As both the White House and CDC note, the greatest threat to public health is the overuse of antibiotics in humans, though the agriculture industry needs to ensure judicious use of antibiotics as well.

“We support the steps that have been taken by the FDA to seek the phase out of antibiotics to promote growth and to increase veterinary oversight, moves which are consistent with protecting both animal and public health,” she added. “It is encouraging that all 26 companies that make animal health products have pledged to comply with this FDA policy.

“As the reports say, much more needs to be learned about how resistance is being developed and spread through various channels. We support further research and data collection to help ensure that the correct antibiotics are used in the correct circumstances in both human and animal medicine in order to best reduce antibiotic resistance in all populations,” she concluded.