Federal officials warned Tuesday that an especially dangerous group of superbugs has become a significant health problem in hospitals throughout the United States.

These germs, known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, have become much more common in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the risk they pose to health is becoming evident.

“What’s called CRE are nightmare bacteria,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC tells Shots. “They’re basically a triple threat.”

First of all, they are resistant to virtually all antibiotics, including the ones doctors use as a last-ditch option.

Second, these bugs can transfer their invincibility to other bacteria. “The mechanism of resistance to antibiotics not only works for one bacteria, but can be spread to others,” Frieden says.

Third, the bacteria can be deadly. Infection with the bacteria “have a fatality rate as high as 50 percent,” Frieden says.

Although the resistant bacteria potentially pose a risk to anyone, people whose immune systems are weaker, such as elderly people, children and people who have other health problems, tend to be most susceptible to infection.

If the drug-resistance starts to spread from bacteria that are usually a problem in hospitals to much more widespread causes of infections, the risk could rise even more. “If it spread to things like E. coli, which is a common urinary tract infection, it would be a very serious problem,” Frieden says.

The CDC sounded the alarm because of data that show the proportion of bacteria that have this resistance to many drugs has quadrupled in the last decade or so.

CRE cases were reported by 4 percent of hospitals in 2012, up from about 1 percent from about decade earlier, according to the report. In long-term care hospitals the situation is even worse — about 18 percent have reported cases, the CDC says.

In addition, the proportion of Enterobacteriaceae bacteria that were resistant increased from 1.2 percent in 2001 to 4.2 percent in 2011, the CDC reported.

“And that’s for the whole family.” says Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, the CDC’s associate director for health care-associated infection prevention programs. “When we look at one member of this family, a bacteria called Klebsiella, which is the most common type of CRE that we see in the United States, resistance there has gone from about 2 percent to over 10 percent. So a dramatic increase in the frequency with which these organisms are being seen in our hospitals in the United States.”

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Brad Spellberg, of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, likens the situation to the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage. “We’re not talking about an iceberg that’s down the line,” said Spellberg. “The ship has hit the iceberg. We’re taking on water. We already have people dying. Not only of CRE, but of untreatable CRE.”

So far, these infection are still relatively rare. And they have only been seen in in hospitals.

The big fear is that they’ll start to move out of hospitals and into the communities around them. “If CRE spreads out of hospitals and into communities, that’s when the ship is totally underwater and we all drown,” Spellberg says.

To prevent that from happening, the CDC and others are calling on hospitals to contain CRE. “We can nip this in the bud. But it’s going to take a lot of effort on the part of hospitals,” Frieden says

The first thing hospitals need to do is test patients to see if they have these bugs. “The basic steps are finding patients with CRE and making sure they are isolated so that they don’t spread it others,” Frieden says.

That includes common sense things like keeping them away from other patients, and sterilizing everything they come into contact with.

“We know that this can stop outbreaks. It has helped in Florida. It’s helped in other countries,” Frieden says. “And the good news about this is that it still hasn’t spread so widely that we can’t stop it.”

And doctors have to use antibiotics more carefully to prevent more germs from developing into dangerous superbugs.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
 

Comments are closed.

News

February 13, 2016 | NPR · Senior Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was confirmed dead Saturday afternoon at a West Texas ranch. NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free-Press.
 

February 13, 2016 | NPR · Talks on the brutal Syrian conflict have ended in Munich with the West and Russia far apart. Russia, whose planes are carrying out deadly bombing raids, seems to hold the cards.
 

NPR
February 13, 2016 | NPR · Scalia was perhaps the leading voice of uncompromising conservatism on the Supreme Court. In his 29 years on the court, he achieved almost a cult following for dissents.
 

Arts & Life

February 13, 2016 | NPR · In a film industry often dominated by men, there’s at least one exception: Many editors are women. Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey speak about their work on the new Star Wars.
 

February 13, 2016 | NPR · Mark and Jay Duplass take a break from writing, directing, acting and producing to play a game called “Hating you is like hating myself.”
 

February 13, 2016 | NPR · In “The Vegetarian,” a young woman is tormented by violent dreams that drive her to give up meat. Author Han Kang says that extremes of human behavior compelled her to write the book.
 

Music

February 13, 2016 | NPR · Weekend Edition remembers Sam Spence, a longtime composer of rousing musical scores for NFL Films’ documentaries and highlight reels.
 

Courtesy of NAL
February 13, 2016 | NPR · “Life can change you on amazing trails if you let it,” Stewart says. His new memoir tells the story of those changes — and his complicated relationship with Annie Lennox.
 

Courtesy of the artist
February 13, 2016 | WXPN · Hear in-studio performances from “Best New Artist” contender Courtney Barnett and nine other World Cafe guests who are up for Grammys this Monday.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab