Notices have been sent out to 179 recent patients at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center that they may have encountered a deadly superbug already linked to the deaths of two people.
The drug-resistant bacteria CRE (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae) was found on two pieces of equipment used in a “complex” endoscopic procedure that they underwent at the hospital between last October and January. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites a report on their website that CRE “can contribute to death in up to 50% of patients who become infected.”
A statement from UCLA said the infected scopes were used to treat “pancreaticobiliary diseases,” including gallstones, pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatis. Although the procedure is considered minimally invasive by medical authorities, it consists of inserting a tube down the patient’s throat. It is used on 500,000 patients a year.
The infected scopes were routinely sterilized per instructions from the manufacturer, the hospital said. But it’s long been known that the intricate equipment can be difficult to clean. The hospital has since switched to a more elaborate procedure that takes days, not hours. It costs more money because they had to buy more scopes to cover the down time.
The CDC estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections sicken more than 2 million people in the U.S. every year, killing at least 23,000. In its 2013 report (pdf) on antibiotic resistance, the agency listed CRE as one of three “urgent threats,” with Clostridium difficile and Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It also listed 12 “serious threats” and three “concerning threats.”
The CDC estimates that 9,300 people a year are infected with CRE and 600 die of it. Medical authorities believe the overuse of antibiotics in treating humans and keeping farm animals alive long enough to enter the food chain are widely believed by medical authorities to have nurtured the creation and spread of the superbugs. Farm animals consume 80% of the antibiotics used in this country.
Outbreaks of CRE are on the rise. Reported incidents increased five-fold at 25 hospitals in the country’s Southeast from 2008 to 2012, according to a study published last year in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.
Most CRE cases begin in health care facilities. The Seattle Times reported in January that the Virginia Mason Medical Center had recorded 32 cases of CRE since 2012, but neither the hospital nor health officials notified the public. Eleven of the patients died, but many of those receiving treatment may already have been suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
Dr. Chris Baliga, Virginia Mason’s medical director of infection prevention, defended the silent treatment and told the Times, “Are you going to create unnecessary fear in the public about something we can’t do anything about?”
Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, King County interim health officer who helped investigate the outbreak, concurred. “Patients are at the same or higher risk all across the country,” he said. “We didn’t feel like it was a new issue that warranted emergency notification.”
The 179 patients at Ronald Reagan Medical Center have been notified that they should be tested and were offered the option of coming in or receiving a rectal swab in the mail for self-testing at home.