Healthcare News & Insights

CDC: ‘Phantom menace’ superbug poses patient risk

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning hospitals of a new superbug that could have deadly implications for patients if not recognized and treated quickly. 

ThinkstockPhotos-178449351Dubbed the “phantom menace” by CDC officials and other infectious disease experts, the new superbug is a strain of CRE bacteria that’s resistant most antibiotics.

According to an article in the Washington Post, it actually contains a piece of DNA that breaks down antibiotics, rendering them ineffective.

And this DNA can duplicate itself and latch onto any other bacteria in a person’s body – making them resistant as well. That increases the likelihood of more types of superbugs developing rapidly.

Despite this, the superbug isn’t as potent as other forms of antibiotic-resistant CRE on its surface. So it hasn’t been tested for as often in clinical laboratories, and it’s fallen through the cracks. This has allowed it to stealthily gain ground in infecting patients over the last few years – hence its “phantom menace” nickname.

Numbers have been relatively small compared to other strains of CRE, but the strain has quickly spread to the United States from Turkey, where it was first discovered, according to a report from the CDC.

And the number of patients who are infected with this type of CRE has increased significantly over the past five years, with the biggest outbreaks in California and Illinois. So officials are concerned.

Most of the recent cases of CRE in this country were found in patients who had traveled outside the United States within a year of infection. Many of the patients were traveling to India. Over half of them were hospitalized overnight in a facility abroad.

Hospitals’ role

Because of this, hospitals may want to screen patients with a recent history of travel for CRE bacteria to see if they’re carrying this resistant superbug – particularly if they were admitted to a hospital while abroad.

If so, steps should be taken right away to begin appropriate treatment.

Per the CDC, patients with CRE should be placed in isolation rooms, or in a room with someone who has the same strain of CRE infection. Staff should closely follow accepted hygiene protocol:

  • wearing gloves and gowns before entering an infected patient’s room,
  • carefully disinfecting and cleaning rooms and equipment, and
  • washing hands before and after patient care.

While these practices can reduce the spread of CRE once a patient has it, the biggest thing hospitals can do to stop the spread of similar “phantom menace” strains is to adopt more conservative practices when administering antibiotics to patients.

An effective antibiotic stewardship program can minimize the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to patients. It ensures drugs aren’t overused, which makes it harder for bacteria to become immune to them.

Antibiotics can also harm patients’ immune systems in the short term. That makes them susceptible to contracting superbugs and other illnesses while hospitalized. Using them more wisely can cut this risk.

For more information about what your hospital can do to get better at prescribing antibiotics, visit the CDC’s Get Smart for Healthcare website.

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