You may have heard of the outbreak of fungal meningitis, credited with (as of this writing) 205 cases across the country. A possible cause of the outbreak is a steroid product injected into the spine. But there’s another serious outbreak to note, one that hasn’t received as much publicity.
The National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center was host to an antibiotic-resistant bug for several months last year. It hasn’t affected as many people, but it may have much more impact that the meningitis outbreak. While not the first antibiotic resistant bug to pester the public health system (many may have heard of MRSA – an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph), the carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella bacteria that struck the Clinical Center will likely force changes in hospital practice that will have to persist while the next generation of antibiotics are developed.
The serious toll of this superbug – initially reported as 17 affected, 11 dead (six due to the bug, the other five due to the illness that placed them in the Clinical Center) – is still being assessed. Maryn McKenna has reported (with lots of excellent linkage to other writing on this bug) that the bug tends to linger. An additional fatality occurred this summer, long after the initial outbreak was assumed to be under control.
It’s not too clear to me what’s worse – the antibiotic resistance, or the lingering bugs that seem to resist even increased measures to eradicate the bugs.
What this should emphasize is how much we can’t do or don’t know about some of these bacteria and the antibiotics we try and fight them with. One of the new developments from the latest outbreak is an increased focus on cleaning every single nook and cranny around infected patients. But when you can still be hospitalized and treated for an infection that your doctors could not identify, it does make you want to reach for the hand sanitizer. Resist that urge. Better to make sure the hospital’s cleaning staff pays as much attention to your room as the medical staff pays attention to you.