Superbug poses danger in hospitals

(CBS News) NEW YORK - One of the most dangerous threats inside hospitals today is a superbug called CRE, a bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Cases of CRE have been increasing, and have now been found in at least 43 states.

CDC: Deadly drug-resistant bacteria on rise in U.S. hospitals

In 2010, Barbara Thom had brain surgery that successfully removed a benign tumor. Weeks later, she was back in the hospital fighting a life-threatening infection called carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae -- or CRE.

"I think the most traumatic part was seeing the infectious disease doctor and he said, 'We have to admit you. I want you to go to the hospital right now. Don't stop for anything,'" recalled Thom.

CRE infections develop during medical care when bacteria normally found in the digestive tract develop antibiotic resistance and move to other parts of the body.

Dr. Lance Peterson of NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois studies hospital-acquired infections. "The danger of CRE is that when it happens, it's very difficult to treat and very dangerous if it happens to get into our bloodstream," he said.

Half of the bloodstream infections are fatal. CRE was first identified in the U.S. in 2001. Now CRE has been found in 4.6 percent of all hospitals and 18 percent of hospitals providing long-term acute care. Only nine states have mandatory reporting laws for CRE.

"We are only seeing two per month coming in from the community, either other hospitals or nursing homes," said Perterson. "But it's clearly more prevalent than it used to be."

Normally it takes days to identify a positive case by growing bacteria in the lab. But NorthShore has developed a special DNA test that finds CRE in just two to three hours.

Three years after getting infected, Barbara Thom is still taking antibiotics. "I have it," she said. "I can't get rid of it. I don't know what the future will be."

CRE is still relatively rare compared to other hospital-acquired infections, so the CDC believes hospitals should put in aggressive programs now to limit further spread. Prevention is key because there is no effective antibiotic treatment. Recovery depends largely on a patient's immune system.

Starting this week, New York State is requiring all hospitals to report any case of CRE.

For information, visit the the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology Web site, and the CDC page on CRE.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook