Reports of the rise of a rare but potentially deadly class of “superbugs” that target those already struggling with illness have now caught the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Following warnings from health officials on both sides of the Atlantic, three Democratic congressmen have are calling for hearings to investigate the scope of the threat.
The “nightmare” gut-dwelling bacteria have acquired resistance to a class of drugs that is a last resort.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) can’t be killed by most antibiotics, they are associated with a high mortality rate and “they can spread their resistance to other bacteria.”
Enterobacteriaceae are a family of mostly harmless bacteria that live in the gut, but also includes E. coli, shigella, salmonella and klebsiella. These latter bacteria can cause illnesses, including pneumonia, diarrhea, and urinary tract infections, if they are swallowed or enter the bloodstream through an open wound.
If CRE pathogens can transfer their resistance to bacteria such as E. coli, then it could make a common illness, like a urinary tract infection, extremely difficult to treat, said Dr. Frieden.
Britain’s top medical officer said late last week she was exploring ways to offer the pharmacetical industry greater financial incentives to target the new class of antibiotic-resistant germs, including public-private partnerships and government purchase guarantees for companies who develop useful but financially unrewarding drugs.
“We need to look at basic science, intellectual property and how to invest so we can developo products and get them into practice quickly to save lives,” Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies told the London Financial Times.
In Washignton, congressional hearings “should be held as quickly as possible to examine the appropriate federal response to this serious threat,” Democrat Reps. Henry A. Waxman of California, Frank Pallone Jr., of New Jersey, and Diana DeGette of Colorado wrote recently to the Republican leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Dr. Frieden called for stepped-up sanitation efforts in health care facilities, more diligent hand-washing in all health care workers, and more discriminating use of antibiotics and invasive medical devices like catheters.
Providers of nursing home and other long-term health care say they are already “on top” of the multidrug-resistant bugs.
Studies have shown that if CRE patients are quickly identified, and they and their medical equipment are isolated from others, current hospital sanitary protocols can greatly improve the odds that the infections will not spread. An Israeli study cited by the CDC, for instance, found that concerted efforts led that nation to slash its CRE incidence from 55.5 cases per 100,000 patient-days to 11.7 cases per 100,000 patient-days.
CRE death rates ranged from 38 percent to 44 percent in two studies; the CDC reported three deaths out of 72 CRE cases in three states between August and December 2011.
CRE, first seen in the United States in 1996, is still “relatively uncommon,” the CDC said, but it decided to raise concerns about it because it found at least one case of CRE in a recent survey of 42 states.