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The CDC recently sounded the alarm about the dangers posed by a special strain of bacteria dubbed a “superbug,” given its resistance to most antibiotics.

At least five strains of bacteria from a relatively common family of germs are now resistant to treatment with antibiotics. Even more worrisome for public health officials is that this level of resistance is new; only 10 years ago such resistance virtually nonexistent.

The bacteria, known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, is a nightmare according to CDC officials because it poses a triple threat. For one thing, the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. For another, they have incredibly high mortality rates, killing half of the people that are ultimately infected by the bacteria. Finally, they are able to replicate quickly and can spread their antibiotic resistance on to other, currently less dangerous bacteria.

CRE works by infecting a wide array of body systems: the bloodstream, soft tissues and the urinary tract. It thrives in hospitals and nursing homes, typically taking hold in sick and immunosuppressed patients, often through ventilators, catheters or other equipment handled by medical caregivers moving from patient to patient.

Hospitals and nursing home facilities across the country have been strongly warned about the dangerous bacteria. So far CRE has been reported in 42 states, including here in Virginia. In the first half of 2012 around 4% of U.S. hospitals saw at least one case of CRE. Though this number seems low, it represents a 400% increase in the past ten years.

The bug is especially damaging to those patients who are immune-compromised, preying on vulnerable patients and elderly individuals. Given its deadliness to vulnerable patients, the occurrence of CRE in long-term care facilities is even higher than in general hospital settings. Last year, 18% of long-term care hospitals reported at least one CRE case. Horrifyingly, one such hospital in Florida reportedly had a whopping 44% infection rate.

To stop the bacteria’s spread, CDC Director Tom Frieden offered some crucial advice to healthcare providers: “Wash your hands before touching a patient every time!” The CDC also recommends that healthcare providers minimize the use of catheters and throat tubes to reduce incidence of infection. Another suggestion is that hospitals should use only certain staff members to care for CRE patients, that way other nurses and staff members do not accidentally spread the bacteria to other, healthy patients.

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton & Favaloro personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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