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Funding superbug research is critical [Commentary]

Anyone who has lost a loved one has experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Following my mother's death from one such infection, Clostridium difficile, or C. diff., in April 2010, I went through the stages also. In making the shift from depression to acceptance, my brother and I founded the Peggy Lillis Memorial Foundation to raise awareness of C. diff. In our anger at learning that a disease we'd never heard of, not only claimed our mother, but also kills more than 28,000 Americans every year, we committed to ensuring that her death would not be in vain.

Though largely preventable, C. diff. claims at least one American every 19 minutes. And someone in the U.S. contracts a C. diff. infection (CDI) every minute. In late 2013, the CDC classified CDIs as one of three most "urgent" health threats facing the nation and requiring aggressive action.

That's why approving the president's proposal for an additional $44 million for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the 2015 budget is a must for public health. The proposal would help scientists tackle the most dangerous superbugs, including CDIs. In specific, $30 million in increased funding would establish regional laboratory networks to better detect drug-resistant threats in the community and in hospitals. It would also create a drug-resistant bacteria bank where companies could access samples to test new diagnostics or antibiotics. And it would set up a public-access data portal with information on drug-resistant infections, along with an overdue study to look at the long-term impact of antibiotics in young children.

Research indicates more than 90 percent of CDIs are linked to health care settings. CDC leaders believe the new investment would decrease health care-associated CDIs by 50 percent over the next five years. This is exactly the kind of progress we need. From 1993 to 2009, the number of CDIs increased fourfold to more than 470,000, with no sign of ebbing.

The president has also requested $14 million to permit full implementation of CDC's National Healthcare Safety Network's Antibiotic Use and Resistance Tracking system, which electronically tracks infections that defy drug intervention. As news of the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections reverberates worldwide, investing to document and counteract the most dangerous strains takes on utmost importance.

By anyone's measure, $44 million is a great deal of money. Many in Congress reviewing the president's request will have their own ideas of how to spend that money. Over the past five years, we've heard endlessly about government tightening its belt. But budgets are moral documents that reveal our priorities as a country. Given the peril that C. diff. and other drug-resistant organisms represent to our public health, better efforts to track, research and combat them has to be a priority.

For those focused on the bottom line, these programs promise an enormous return on investment. Each day American taxpayers spend $32 million to treat CDIs, according to landmark studies by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Decreasing health care-acquired CDIs by 50 percent will save our health care system more than $3 billion annually. On an individual level, the average hospital cost for a patient with C. diff. is $23,190, compared to $8,860 for those without. In Virginia, patients with C. diff. spend nearly three times as long in the hospital as non-sufferers, 13.2 days versus 4.6 days.

And those costs for U.S. taxpayers are rising, as total CDI cases each year approach the 500,000 mark.

The question before Congress is how we can invest best to spare thousands of Americans annually the pain caused by CDIs. In the CDC's plan, cutting C. diff. in half would cost less than 15 cents per American, and less than $94 per person infected by C. diff. Given the high cost of treating C. diff., this relatively small investment would net our health care system more than $23,000 in savings for each C. diff. hospitalization avoided.

Even when weighed against preventing half of the more than 28,000 deaths caused by CDIs each year, the increased funding breaks down to just over $3,000 per life saved. I would spend much more than that to have my mother with me today.

Christian John Lillis is executive director of the Peggy Lillis Memorial Foundation. His email is cjlillis@peggyfoundation.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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