Superbugs -- bacteria strains resistant to antibiotics -- are on the rise. Today, according to Dr. Philip Tierno, Director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at the Langone Medical Center at New York University, there are 2.5 million infections annually worldwide which result in about 100,000 needless deaths and cost billions of dollars in additional treatments.
One particularly deadly infection is MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus). While hospitals generally don't publicize cases of patients acquiring such superbugs, one incident was widely covered in the media two years ago. In that case, Alonzo Smith, an 18-year old high school football player in Kissimmee, Florida, became sick after being infected by MRSA. It was not clear where he first came in contact with the infection -- in the school's locker room or in the hospital. But it tragically killed the youngster.
One year before his death, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that MRSA causes 19,000 deaths every year in the U.S., which is more than HIV/AIDS causes. The study pointed out that the number was particularly ominous because 20% of those who get the bacteria die from it and increasingly, its victims are young, healthy people like Alonzo Smith.
Rising Cost of Superbugs
Then there is the cost of treating MRSA. A patient who contracts it while hospitalized stays an average 10 days longer and costs an additional $30,000.
Another superbug attacked a woman in central Florida a few years back. Claudia Meijia delivered her baby in the hospital. But the happy occasion became devastating. While she was there, she was infected by a flesh eating bacteria that became so bad, doctors had no choice but to amputate both her arms and legs to keep her alive.
The Most Feared Newcomer: NDM-1
Superbugs have been plaguing hospitals in the U.S. and around the world since the creation of antibiotics. As more antibiotics are used, superbugs acclimate to them, and become stronger.
"Globalization is a driver," says NYU's Dr. Tierno. "Americans go to India because it's cheaper to get some surgical procedures done there, but then they pick up various strains and spread them."
A Promising New Way to Kill Superbugs
How can superbugs be controlled? One of the latest attacks on killer infections comes from Newark, N.J -based BioNeutral Group, which has developed a sterilizing compound called Ygiene, which is designed to quickly and inexpensively help hospitals to kill superbugs. Chief Scientist at BioNeutral, Andrew Kielbania, says that Ygiene can kill superbugs faster and more cost effectively than alternative methods. So far, the product has been approved for sale as a disinfectant in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden. It is waiting for approval from the EPA -- expected in January -- before it can be used in the U.S.
In the meantime, there are other products such as antimicrobials and bleach that can destroy superbugs. But they can take a long time to work. Bleach, in particular, is toxic, so many doctors and nurses are averse to using it. In addition, bleach can be costly since after a certain amount of use, hospitals have to shut down wings to repair rooms and equipment. Ygiene, which comes in a variety of formats, has not had any negative side effects in hospitals.
Best Approach: Rigorous Hygiene
Perhaps the best attack against the superbugs is rigorous hygiene. Superbugs can be transmitted by doctors and nurses who have not properly washed their hands and by ventilators and catheters that have not been cleaned properly.
Dr.Tierno says the Scandinavian countries serve as a model. There, hospitals are known for meticulously cleaning and disinfecting rooms and equipment between patients, for testing incoming patients for superbugs to ensure they are not bringing anything in to the hospital, and for taking simple steps such as making sure beds don't butt up against each other so infections don't spread. Another important strategy: No routine use of antibiotics so that infections don't become resistant to any particular one.
Eight Superbugs That Could Kill You
MRSA -- Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus
MRSA or Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus is one of the most recognized superbugs around. Since it is very difficult to treat, it can be deadly. It is associated with urinary tract infections, bone and joint infection and can result in ruptured abscesses which are difficult to heal. It has been identified in health care settings, homes, locker rooms, gyms and schools. Mortality Rate: About 35%.
This flesh eating bacteria infects when surgery or deep wounds are exposed to germs on the skin. Thousands of people every year become infected by Strep A, which releases toxins that can shut down organs. But others are infected with the strain that turns into flesh eating disease. The fastest way to stop it is to cut the skin off. Mortality Rate: About 28%.
Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus
This superbug isn't all that dangerous -- as long as it doesn't get into your urinary tract or seep into an open wound. Then, it can become life threatening. VRE, as it is known, is a leading cause of urinary tract infections and meningitis. If this gets you while you are undergoing surgery, it could kill you. Mortality Rate: About 40%.
Resistant Klebsiella Pneumonia
The most famous strain of this bacteria is also the newest and most feared: NDM-1. Klebsiella pneumonia is often associated with extremely difficult to treat blood stream infections, surgical site infections and meningitis. It has a high mortality rate even with antimicrobial therapy. The rate goes up even more for individuals with alcoholism and bacteria in the blood. Mortality Rate: over 50%.
Resistant Pseudomonas Aeruginosa
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a bacterium commonly found in soil and water. But if it gets into you through a break in the skin, it can turn deadly. The superbug, associated with lung, kidney and blood infections, is particularly serious in patients hospitalized with cancer, cystic fibrosis and burns. It causes urinary tract infections, respiratory system infections, bone and joint infections among many others. Mortality Rate: near 50%.
Resistant E. coli
This is a new, virulent drug resistant strain of E.Coli and it poses a significant public threat. It is associated with gastrointestinal infections and dehydration. It comes from feces of an animal coming into contact with food products. A particular problem right now is its interference with drugs used to treat bladder infections. The deadly strain could be responsible for more than 3,000 deaths per year.
Resistant Acinetobacter Baumannii
Infections by A. baumannii tend to happen most in immunosupressed patients with underlying diseases. The superbug also attacks patients having invasive treatments in the hospital. It can cause severe central nervous system infections, meningitis and ventriculitis, especially in patients undergoing head trauma. It is also associated with blood and urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Mortality rate: approaching 80%.
More commonly known as C.diff, this bacterium is passed in feces and spread to food and other objects when people infected do not wash their hands well. The bacteria generates spores that are very difficult to eliminate. Once the infection spreads, it produces toxins that attack the lining of the intestine. Symptoms include diarrhea to inflammation of the colon, which can lead to death. Among those most likely to come down with the disease are older adults in hospitals or long-term care facilities. Mortality rate: Up to 25% in elderly, frail patients.