Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are rapidly spreading throughout hospitals in the southeastern United States, according to a new study published in the current issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. Medical experts warn that the findings should serve as a “wake up call” about a serious issue that threatens hospitals and nursing homes across the nation.
The five-year research project tracked a cluster of 25 community hospitals located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that infections due to the potentially deadly germs known as CRE — which are virtually untreatable with our current antibiotics — increased by 500 percent in those hospitals between 2008 and 2012. And they say their new report probably underestimates the recent rise of CRE.
“CRE” refers to a class of bacteria that can lead to infections in the lungs, urinary tract, and blood. Healthy people aren’t typically at risk for becoming infected with CRE; the bacteria tends to strike patients with compromised immune systems who are receiving treatment through catheters and ventilators. Those patients are already vulnerable to begin with, and about half of them die once they’re infected with CRE. The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated CRE as one of the greatest threats to human health, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it a “nightmare bacteria.”
The medical community has been concerned about CRE for the past decade, and has experimented with new technology to better sanitize health care settings to prevent the spread of the bug. However, as the Duke researchers write, “despite the global emergence of CRE, no clear consensus has emerged in regard to the method of detection.” There aren’t any standard screening or reporting protocols in place.
“This is a wake up call for community hospitals. More must be done to prepare and respond to CRE,” Dr. Joshua Thaden, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. Thaden believes his results point to a nationwide problem, and warns that “a CRE epidemic is fast approaching.”
One of the reasons that superbugs like CRE are on the rise is because of the overuse of antibiotics, which can allow bacteria to adapt and become resistant to the treatments typically used to combat them. This is an issue that’s larger than CRE itself. We’re also running out of effective treatments for common infections like malaria, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and whooping cough. Nonetheless, research to create new antibiotics has stalled — largely because working to develop new drugs isn’t as profitable for the pharmaceutical industry.
Over the past several weeks, most of the attention surrounding public health issues has been dedicated to the potential threat posed by the current Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 1,000 people in Western Africa. Although that’s certainly a serious international health concern, medical professionals say that it’s nowhere near as big of a threat to Americans as superbugs are.
“Freaking out about Ebola in the U.S. while antibiotic resistant superbugs rampage in our hospitals is like fearing Freddy Kruger will ring the doorbell while Jeffrey Dahmer sits at your dining room table,” Dr. Tim Lahey, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Duke Medical Center, told Jezebel in a recent interview. Lahey referred to the spread of antibiotic resistance as “truly nightmarish” but noted that “because it’s less exotic than Ebola it grips the popular imagination less well.”