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Superbug information too little, too late

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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

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