Hospitals are quietly waging a war against “superbugs,” bacteria that are resistant to most — if not all — antibiotics. They struck at the University of Virginia Medical Center four years ago, killing several.
The superbugs, called Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), are named for their ability to fight off even the last line of defense in the hospitals’ toolboxes, reports USA Today.
The stubborn bacteria pose a massive threat, as hospitals are not prepared to treat the once-rare disease. What was once and obscure bacteria has come to plague several US hospitals and nursing homes. So far, the CREs have emerged almost exclusively in health care facilities, where they pick off the weakest patients.
The hospitals’ quiet war gained national attention this summer when a CRE strain attacked the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center outside Washington, D.C. Seven people were killed in the outbreak, including a 16-year-old boy.
There have been several other outbreaks, some larger than the more televised versions, with the CRE bacteria presenting in several different forms, from pneumonia and intestinal infections to urinary tract infections.
The bacteria’s ability to withstand even the most difficult antibiotics makes officials worry that there is no way to stop the illness. The Detroit Free Press notes that death rates among CRE patients are about 40 percent, making the superbug worse than better-known health care infections like MRSA and C-Diff, which have made nursing homes and hospitals home for decades.
CREs have been around since the first detected case in 2001. In eleven years they have spread to 41 states, though it is possible it may be affecting more because many cases still go unrecognized. Compounding the current inability to fight off CREs, there are no antibiotics currently in development that show promise for defeating the superbug.
Many hospitals also lack the ability to identify CRE, or even the resources to effectively screen and isolate patients to prevent its spread. The CDC’s Arjun Srinivasan, associated director for the body’s prevention of health care-associated infections, stated:
We’re working with state health departments to try to figure out how big a problem this is. We’re still at a point where we can stop this thing. You can never eradicate CRE, but we can prevent the spread … it’s a matter of summoning the will.”
But others are less optimistic. Eli Perencevich, a professor and infectious disease doctor at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine, stated, “My concern is that there aren’t a lot of methods in our tool kit that are significantly effective in curbing the spread of these infections.”
Until there is a way to identify every patient with the superbug CRE, or a way to cure it using an antibiotic, the drug-resistant infection continues to threaten to change the face of health care.