This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report warning of over 221 new instances of superbug infections involving “nightmare bacteria” in 2017—a number that’s startling given that at present there are just 12 superbug infections recognized by the World Health Organization. The term “nightmare bacteria” has been used in the past to describe these especially rare antibiotic resistant genes — it continues to apply.
The report was put out by the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance (AR) Lab Network, a system that connects labs across all 50 states through an online database. The AR network was created in 2016 with the goal of quickly detecting antibiotic resistance and alerting the CDC to help prevent an outbreak. Although the goal of the report was to help inform, the news of more superbugs has sparked concern nationwide. In the interest of staying safe, here’s what you need to know.
Superbugs can be deadly
The term “superbug” refers to infections that have outsmarted antibiotics—a common one is C. difficile—rendering them nearly impossible to treat. The Mayo Clinic explains it this way: “Over time, bacteria adapt to the drugs that are designed to kill them and change to ensure their survival,” the organization writes. “This makes previously standard treatments for bacterial infections less effective, and in some cases, ineffective.” The CDC estimates that two million Americans are attacked by superbugs yearly. An average of 23,000 of those people die.
Superbugs are mostly passed to patients in hospitals
The majority of these infections are spread in health facilities—in particular, hospitals—while patients are being treated. The most commonly spread superbug in hospitals is C. difficile, which stands for Clostridium difficile. The infection spreads through feces, passing from one person to another when it comes in contact with things like food and hard surfaces. Once infected, a person with C. difficile experiences severe diarrhea, sometimes as up to 15 times a day.
Another dangerous superbug is Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae or (CRE). This is an infection made up of normal bacteria from the gut that lands elsewhere, such as the urinary tract, where it can be lethal. It’s most often spread through medical devices, like ventilators or catheters, and rarely affects healthy people outside of hospitals. Since it’s not only resistant to antibiotics, but capable of transferring its resistance to other infections, it was deemed “nightmare bacteria” by the CDC in 2015.
This new report found previously unidentified ‘nightmare bacteria’
Through quicker, more thorough testing, researchers were able to track antibiotic resistance (AR) “threats” nationwide, uncovering 221 new instances of “nightmare bacteria,” in 27 states. One specific example was a case in Iowa, where experts detected a nightmare bacteria in a nursing home patient. The health department, after identifying that it was a new threat, screened 30 patients for the germ, and found it had spread to five other people. Using increased protection (per CDC protocol) including gowns and gloves, they were able to successfully treat the severe infection in the six patients, and stop it from spreading further.
They may not necessarily cause symptoms
One of the more troubling aspects of the report was the finding that many carriers of the nightmare bacteria were not showing symptoms. The report does not go into specifics of which individuals in which states weren’t showing symptoms, but taking Iowa as an example, this means that some of the five patients who tested positive for the nightmare bacteria weren’t showing symptoms. Overall, the researchers said that 11 percent of the people found to be carrying these new superbugs didn’t show symptoms. This aligns with other superbugs that are currently in existence, such as super gonorrhea, which can go unnoticed for years.
The good news is that for now, they’re still rare
During a telephone news conference announcing the study, current CDC director Dr. Anne Schuchat told reporters that these infections have yet to become widespread—which is exactly the point. “These unusual threats are the uncommon or highly resistant germs that have yet to spread throughout the U.S.,” said Schuchat. “We are working to get in front of them before they do become common in order to protect patients now and in the future. The good news is that we had hard data showing an aggressive approach works.”
The CDC has already begun enacting a plan to stop them
The “aggressive approach” involves the AR Lab Network overseeing the ramping up of testing nationwide, helping to stop emerging antibiotic-resistant threats as they happen. Once identified, doctors can test everyone who has come in contact with that person, and then use the most powerful antibiotics (known as ‘last line defenses”) to wipe them out in those patients, immediately.
By stopping them from multiplying, doctors prevent them from joining other superbugs or transferring their resistance to other more benign bacteria. “When there’s a fire somebody needs to put it out,” Schuchat told reporters. “CDC supports more than 500 local staff across the country to combat antibiotic resistance wherever it emerges. Every state is now better able to stop the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and help keep these new threats from becoming common.”
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