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Deadly superbugs a major problem in hospitals

By Arthur Elk

There is a new family of superbugs spreading through U.S. hospitals and health officials are sounding the alarm now, before it’s too late.

This class of superbug, known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, tends to affect immune-compromised people who are hospitalized for a long time or are living in a nursing home. But officials are worried about what effect this type of bacteria may have in the long run.

According to Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “They’re resistant to nearly all antibiotics. They have high mortality rates, killing half of people with serious infections. And they can spread their resistance to other bacteria.”

There are 70 kinds of bugs in the CRE family and at least five kinds have already developed resistance to a class of antibiotic called carbapenems, considered one of the last lines of defense against hard-to-treat bugs.

Earlier this week, CDC officials said that in the first half of 2012, nearly 200 U.S. hospitals (around 4 percent) saw at least one case of CRE. In addition, 18 percent of long-term, acute-care hospitals had at least one patient with CRE in that same timeframe, according to the CDC. Officials say the “nightmare bacteria” have been found in 42 states.

But in reality, the numbers are likely much higher. So far, only six states require hospitals and other facilities to report CRE infections, making it difficult to reliably track how many cases there have been.

Hospitals have been fighting these infections for years. An outbreak of one of the bugs killed seven patients between 2011 and 2012 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

The CDC has urged hospital workers to watch for the infections and take appropriate steps to prevent passing the germs to other patients.

The biggest danger posed by CRE is its ability to somehow share its resistance with other bacteria. So even though CRE is relatively rare, if it shares its resistance with more common bacteria, common conditions which are now treated with antibiotics could become untreatable.

If you have a loved one in a hospital or nursing home, the most important thing you can do is to wash your hands as soon as you leave the hospital room.

Hospitals and health officials must continue to be watchful of superbugs such as CRE and work hard to find ways to combat their spread. We can’t afford to wait until a large-scale outbreak of a superbug occurs to find a way to fight these deadly bacteria.