In today's terrifying health news, the Los Angeles Times reports that two medical scopes used at UCLA's Ronald Reagan Medical Center may have been contaminated with the potentially deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). Two patients have died from complications that may be connected to the bacteria, and authorities believe that 179 more patients have been exposed.
Most healthy people aren't at risk of catching a CRE infection, but in hospitals this bacteria can be quite dangerous: CRE kills as many as half of all people in whom the infection has spread to the bloodstream. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are working with the California Department of Public Health to investigate the situation, which is expected to result in more infections.
The problem isn't just in Los Angeles, though. Last month, USA Today reported that hospitals around the country struggle with transmissions of bacteria on these scopes—medical devices commonly used to treat digestive-system problems—and there have been several other under-the-radar outbreaks of CRE.
This is pretty scary stuff, considering that we are starting to fall behind in the antibiotics arms race against bacteria. Due in large part to unnecessary medical prescriptions and overuse of antibiotics in our food supply, these superbugs are on the rise. In a study published last year that focused specifically on hospitals in the Southeast, researchers reported that CRE cases had increased fivefold between 2008 and 2012.
As Mother Jones' Tom Philpott wrote recently, unless something changes, it will only get worse:
in a new report, the UK government has come out with some startling global projections. Currently, the report finds, 700,000 people die annually from pathogens that have developed resistance to antibiotics, a figure the report calls a "low estimate." If present trends continue, antibiotic failure will claim 10 million lives per year by 2050, the report concludes. That's more carnage than what's currently caused by cancer and traffic accidents combined.
The CDC has, in recent years, amped up its efforts to contain the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and has developed a toolkit to help educate both patients and medical practitioners. The Obama administration has increased funding in 2015 for CDC research into how to better detect these types of infections. It also expanded the National Healthcare Safety Network to track threats of superbugs and areas of antibiotic overuse.
But the CDC emphasizes that more must be done:
Can you imagine a day when antibiotics don't work anymore? It's concerning to think that the antibiotics that we depend upon for everything from skin and ear infections to life-threatening bloodstream infections could no longer work. Unfortunately, the threat of untreatable infections is very real.