ShareThis Page

Superbug information too little, too late

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, March 18, 2013, 10:28 a.m.

My phone rang often this week when the Tribune-Review published stories about a nasty killer germ making the rounds in the nation's health care facilities.

A concerned wife asked whether her unresponsive, hospitalized husband could be infected by the so-called CRE bacteria because he isn't responding to powerful antibiotics. The father of an 18-month-old boy with sickle cell anemia asked whether the superbug was found in Children's Hospital.

Certainly any organism resistant to most antibiotics is a serious matter, especially in hospitals and nursing homes. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called CRE “nightmare bacteria” that kill up to half of the infected patients. They spread often from doctors, nurses, relatives and visitors who fail to wash their hands when they go into a patient's room.

No one is telling us where the bacteria are. All we know from the CDC is that 42 states, including Pennsylvania, reported CRE cases. The state Department of Health says Pennsylvania hospitals are not required to report the infections. In fact, only six states require reporting.

The lack of accountability and transparency riles Betsy McCaughey, a former New York lieutenant governor and patient advocate who founded the national Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.

McCaughey, who was born in Shadyside Hospital, told me that she's disappointed in the CDC's slow response to the CRE problem in light of a 2011 outbreak that killed seven patients in the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“Unfortunately, it's too little, too late,” she said.

McCaughey suggested that the best way to stop the spread of CRE is with aggressive steps such as screening every patient admitted to a hospital from another health care facility. Doing so would tell doctors immediately if a person needs to be isolated.

In addition, McCaughey declared, hospitals need to shape up the way they clean patient rooms. She shared something interesting: Folks in the NIH hospital stopped the outbreak there only after double-cleaning patient rooms with bleach and misting them with hydrogen peroxide.

“Any patient going into a hospital electively would want to know ahead of time if that germ is in that hospital,” she said. “If it is, they would choose to go elsewhere.”

At UPMC, the largest hospital network in Western Pennsylvania, infection control experts do routine screenings for MRSA and VRE, two other antibiotic-resistant bugs. Dr. Carlene Muto, UPMC's infection control chief, said she's exploring the feasibility of routine CRE screenings.

That's a wise move. Clearly, patients want information about this deadly bug. In its materials about the CRE bacteria, the CDC included a “What can be done” handout advising: “Know the CRE trends in your region.”

Sadly, a spokeswoman told the Trib that state Health Department officials “don't have enough data to tell what the trend looks like.”

Haven't we learned anything from the deadly Legionella bacteria outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh?

Luis Fábregas is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-320-7998or

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.