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N.C., S.C. Hospitals Deal With 'Nightmare Bacteria'

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hospitals in the Carolinas are dealing with a growing threat from a type of superbug. It's only infected a small percentage of patients. But that percentage is on the rise, and the infections can be deadly.

The superbug is called CRE, and a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control describes it as "nightmare bacteria." 

Dr. Katie Passaretti of Carolinas HealthCare System said it's evolved into something extremely difficult to treat.

"Until the past decade or so, the bacteria haven't been smart enough to outwit all the antibiotics we throw at it," she said. "But now (CRE) has developed the ability to become resistant to pretty much anything we can treat it with."

At Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, for example, CRE has infected 18 patients since 2012. Seven of them died.

And Dr. Passaretti said the numbers are on the rise. 

"We've certainly noticed increased cases over the past couple years, as I think a lot of people throughout the country have," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control reports four times as many hospitals have cases of CRE now compared to a decade ago.

That said, it's still an extremely rare type of bacteria that's found almost only among long-term hospital patients. Dr. David Weber is the medical director of infection control at UNC Hospitals.

"We see one infection for every 20,000 patient hospital days, so the simple way to think about would be if you knew how many days you were in the hospital and you divided by 20,000, that would be your risk," Dr. Weber said.

In other words, your risk of getting the nightmare bacteria is tiny.

But Dr. Jim Lederer of Novant Health said there's a good reason for the medical community to sound the alarm now "because this is the same place we were at 40 years ago with MRSA."

MRSA is a staph infection that also started to show resistance to antibiotics. 

"But we didn't really get on it as aggressively as we probably should have," Dr. Lederer said, "And here we are today with MRSA as a common hospital germ and also a common community germ causing infection."

To keep that from happening with CRE, Dr. Lederer said hospitals are taking simple steps like isolating patients who have it and sterilizing everything those patients come into contact with.

Another key is not to overprescribe antibiotics. Dr. Lederer said that's the main reason more bacteria are becoming resistant to treatment.