America's hospitals are places of healing and hope. But they're also home to a growing threat. You may have heard of MSRA - a dangerous infection that can often be treated with antibiotics. Now there's a new class of superbugs - infections striking patients with little or no effective treatment at all.
Jackie Cash and her sisters, Katie and Moira, weren't worried when their 78-year-old father, Bill Shields, checked into a New York hospital earlier this month with a highly treatable form of pneumonia.
CBS News Anchor Katie Couric reports this once-healthy, active man is now clinging to life after he got an infection that's resisted everything the doctors have thrown at it.
(Scroll down to watch the video.)
"You realize there may not be something out there that can actually fix this," Moira said. "That is a horrendous realization."
The organism raging through Bill Shields is KPC-KLEBSIELLA. It's one of five deadly superbugs turning up in America's hospitals with alarming frequency. They're now responsible for 60 percent of all intensive care unit infections.
"What these organisms have done, by creating super-antibiotic resistance, is that they've set medicine back 70 years in time," said Brad Spellberg.
Spellberg is an infectious disease doctor and author of new book, Rising Plague.
Spellberg said "there are increasing cases of infections caused by bacteria that are resistant to every FDA-approved antibiotic. And we literally have no treatment for those bacteria."
The particularly vicious Klebsiella, first reported 10 years ago in one state, has now been found in hospitals in 35 states.
Arjun Srinivasantracks these lethal bugs for the Centers for Disease Control. "I think the most common sources that we see from the transmission of these types of organisms are the hands of healthcare personnel," he said.
These bacteria can live for years on hospital surfaces, entering the body through open wounds, catheters and ventilators. Out-patient surgical centers are particularly vulnerable. A recent study found more than half didn't practice necessary infection control, through hand-washing and sterilization.
Kacia Warren's 67-year-old mother Ruth got a superbug at an outpatient clinic in Columbus, Ohio, where she went for a pinched nerve in her back. But just days after surgery, her mother became infected by acinetobactor which used to be found only in battlefield hospitals.
Warren thinks "somebody had to have touched something in that room that contained that live bacteria, and she got that obviously within her body." She added, "she didn't go in there with it."
Seventeen days after her surgery, Ruth Burns was dead. Warren was devastated. "She was ten days away from retirement, the happiest chapter of her life."
Infectious Disease Society of America
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
CDC: Get Smart about Antibiotics
How did we get to this point?
"For many years, we had resistance with us," Spellberg said. "But for years, whenever it caught up, the drug companies would just come out with the next generation of antibiotics and the problem would be solved. We're no longer getting bailed out with new antibiotic development."
Families like Bill Sheilds' are paying the price.
His daughter Moira said, "Our lives are very, very different than where we were a few weeks ago."
It's estimated tens of thousands of people are dying from these superbugs every year. But only half of all states require hospitals to report infection rates. So public health officials fear the numbers may be even higher.
Copyright 2010 CBS. All rights reserved.