Superbugs: A ticking time bomb

The bacteria recently made headlines when there was an outbreak of the superbug at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Seven patients died.

Dr. Moellering says there will be more outbreaks because, like other superbugs, klebsiella is always changing. "They are able to pick up new resistance genes, and I suspect that we're just going to see a continued progression of resistance in these organisms."

Which makes treatment more difficult. The mortality rate for this particular strain of klebsiella is already as high as 40 percent.

For an infectious disease, a 30-40 percent mortality rate is very high, said Dr. Moellering. "A mortality rate of more than 2-3 percent is really high."

Dr. Moellering says other superbugs are also dangerous, just in different ways.

Take MRSA, which stands for methicillin resistant staph aureus. And even though it has "resistant" in its name, drug resistance isn't what makes MRSA most troubling.

"MRSA is not resistant to absolutely everything, yet," said Dr. Moellering. "The reason it's a big problem is because the organisms are easily spread from person to person. . . . And it can cause such a wide variety of infections. It can literally infect every tissue of the body except the fingernails and the teeth."

And that can be life-threatening to patients like little Harrison Karlan.

So Johns Hopkins instituted a protocol of washing all children in its ICU in a special antiseptic called chorhexidine.

Pediatric infectious disease specialist Aaron Milstone found it protects them from blood infections. And he's now testing if it will protect them from the superbug MRSA, too.

"An early study funded by the CDC showed that bathing ICU-hospitalized adults with chlorhexidine reduced the spread of MRSA by about, I think, 35 percent," said Milstone. They are now replicating those studies with children.

Dr. Moellering says there are incentives to decrease infections rates -- financial incentives from the federal government. But he says until there is also more funding for antibiotic research, superbugs can't -- and won't -- be stopped.

"Isn't it really just a ticking time bomb?" asked Altschul.

"Oh, this is a ticking time bomb, because the bacteria are developing resistance mechanisms more rapidly now than we can find new antibiotics," he replied. "And it is in a very real sense an emergency, and we need to deal with this soon, or we're back to the pre-antibiotic era."

"And mortality rates back then were really grim," Altschul said.

They were."