Superbug scare highlights growing problem of drug-resistant bacteria

Last Updated Feb 19, 2015 4:34 PM EST

A major health scare in Southern California is highlighting challenges hospitals face with the growing risk of drug-resistant superbugs.

"It's serious. This is the fifth major infection over the last two to three years, and it keeps happening," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus said Thursday on "CBS This Morning."

Superbug at UCLA Medical Center could have role in two deaths

Officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are scrambling trying to figure out how 179 people may have been exposed to the deadly strain of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, known to be one of the world's best hospitals.

The outbreak, which was discovered last month, is tied to scopes used in specialized endoscopic procedures called ERCP, which took place at the hospital between October 2014 and January of 2015.

Seven people are known to have been exposed since October 2014, and two of those patients died, reports CBS News correspondent Carter Evans.

Agus said this latest scare should serve as a red flag to spur changes in the way hospitals respond to such cases.

Officials are now in the process of notifying the 179 patients who may have come into contact with the bacteria.

"What scares me is they announced that this happened end of January. Three weeks later, they're notifying patients and sending them at-home [testing] kits. Sounds a little strange to me," Agus said.

Agus said the delay in contacting patients is worrisome because, while the bacteria doesn't cause problems until it gets in the blood stream, it can be on the skin and spread to others. According to the CDC, once the bacteria enters the bloodstream, it can kill up to 50 percent of infected patients.

The UCLA Medical Center cleaned the scopes according to guidelines established by the manufacturer, but the type of endoscope used in the procedure, which some estimates say is performed half a million times a year in the U.S., can accumulate bacteria in spots that are very difficult to disinfect.

In a statement, the UCLA health system said "the two scopes involved with the infection were immediately removed and UCLA is now utilizing a decontamination process that goes above and beyond the manufacturer and national standards."

CRE is resistant to commonly used antibiotics and is in the same family of bacteria as E. coli.

Better antibiotics against superbugs may come from soil

In January, Agus and CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook highlighted a new antibiotic called teixobactin that could bring hope in the fight against superbugs.

A new way to kill "superbugs"

"But until they're on the market, it's a major issue," Agus said. "Now once you have one of these particular bacteria, it is very difficult to treat it. So we need to limit the antibiotics we use, and obviously do simple things like washing the hands and washing these scopes and really taking caution so as not to spread it."

Since 2012, superbug infections related to dirty endoscopes have appeared in cities across the country, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and most recently Seattle.

The company that manufactures the scopes, Olympus, issued a statement saying, "Olympus is committed to developing solutions for healthcare professionals that help improve clinical outcomes and enhance quality of life for their patients." The company says it has provided additional information to customers about proper cleaning and reprocessing for the devices, including an interactive checklist with video demonstrations of the procedures.

The company says it is working closely with the FDA and other health officials.