Drug-resistant 'nightmare bacteria' more widespread than previously thought

A new study fuels concerns about the deadly bacteria Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE).

A drug-resistant superbug, blamed for the recent death of a Nevada woman, may be spreading more widely in hospitals—and more stealthily—than previously thought.

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, has already been dubbed a “nightmare bacteria” because it is highly resistant to antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates (PDF) that the bacteria causes an estimated 9,300 infections and 600 deaths in the U.S. each year.

But infection control experts were alarmed last week when the CDC reported that a Nevada woman died because the bacteria was resistant to ever single antibiotic available in the United States.

The latest research only fuels concerns of a looming healthcare crisis. The study, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at 250 samples of CRE from hospitalized patients at four U.S. hospitals. Previous studies have examined one outbreak at a time.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard found a wide variety of genetic traits that enable CRE to resist antibiotics and these traits are transferred easily among various CRE species. The findings indicate that CRE is more widespread than previously thought and that people may spread the germs even though they may show no sign of illness.

"While the typical focus has been on treating sick patients with CRE-related infections, our new findings suggest that CRE is spreading beyond the obvious cases of disease. We need to look harder for this unobserved transmission within our communities and healthcare facilities if we want to stamp it out," William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study, said in a study announcement.

The case of the Nevada woman who died is an example of what clinicians are up against, Hanage told CNN. It’s rare for a person to be resistant to all available drugs and infection control specialists want it to remain rare.

"The best way to stop a person from dying from this is to stop them from getting sick with this, and the best way to stop them from getting sick with it is to make sure they never pick it up in the first place," he told the newspaper.