'Phantom menace' superbug on the rise

A deadly superbug that researchers call the "phantom menace" is spreading in the United States, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The bacteria is a strain of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). The bacteria is difficult to treat because it is resistant to antibiotics and kills up to 50 percent of patients who are infected, the CDC reports. But this strain is of particular concern because it carries a mobile piece of DNA known as a plasmid that is easily transferred to normal bacteria present in the human body, The Washington Post reports.

Scientists dubbed the bacteria "the phantom menace" because it hasn't been a focus of testing and has escaped detection by health officials, according to the article. The CDC reports there have been 43 cases in 19 states over the last five years. The numbers may seem small, but the number of cases is on the rise. There was one case reported in 2010 but 11 new cases each year since 2013.

"This is a tricky drug-resistant bacteria, and it isn't easily found," CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., told the newspaper. "What we're seeing is an assault by the microbes on the last bastion of antibiotics."

The latest findings come in the wake of a global report that revealed an alarming rate of bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotics. Drug-resistant superbugs have been called the health crisis of this generation and public health officials have called for clinicians to stop overprescribing antibiotics when they aren't indicated and reserve broad-spectrum antibiotics for hard-to-treat infections.

Other research finds that drug-resistant superbugs cause as many as half of post-surgical infections and a quarter of post-chemotherapy infections, according to a new study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases earlier this year.

The latest CDC report says that most of the patients who had the "phantom menace" infection had exposure to healthcare outside of the U.S. The agency recommends that organizations screen patients for the bacteria at admission if they were recently hospitalized outside the U.S.

To learn more:
- here's the CDC report
- read The Washington Post article