The bug, known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, adapts quickly, is resistant to the most potent antibiotics, and preys on the most vulnerable populations in health-care facilities.
Because CRE are resistant to most available antibiotics, they are difficult to treat, and can result in death for up to 50 percent of patients who become infected.
The Vital Signs report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals CRE is increasingly finding their way into intensive-care units and long-term health facilities in the United States. Although the numbers of infections are likely still small, this looming public health threat is one that must be decisively addressed.
We have a small window of opportunity to control this serious threat, when it is potentially manageable. Data from CDC suggest that in the first half of 2012, only about 200 hospitals and long-term acute-care hospitals have cared for patients with CRE infections, but the recent upward trend in infection rates is cause for concern.
To effectively combat superbugs like CRE, we need to confront the problem at hand that has allowed them to thrive — the overuse of antibiotics in health care. Studies have shown that one-third of antibiotics prescribed to patients in hospitals are unnecessary.
Improving the use of antibiotics in a hospital can actually save the hospital $400,000 or more per year. The entire health-care system benefits when we improve antibiotic use and decrease drug-resistance.
Health care facilities must take a proactive approach to implement programs that improve antibiotic use. Health care professionals should take every precaution to prevent the spread of deadly infections, including simple tasks like hand washing. Patients should feel empowered to question their doctors and nurses about whether an antibiotic prescription is necessary.
There has been much attention on the rising costs of health care. Here, we have an opportunity to invest in a proven approach that will provide rapid health benefits and cost savings to the American people. Through a coordinated effort, we can ensure the health and safety of patients by staving off the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs like CRE, save health care dollars, and most important, save lives.
Dr. Sara Cosgrove is an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and serves on the board of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan is director and senior fellow at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy and lead investigator on the Extending the Cure Project.