Editorial: We're not defenseless against the superbugs

"CRE are nightmare bacteria," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, "CRE are nightmare bacteria," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding "they have high mortality rates and can spread their resistance to other bacteria." Photo Credit: iStock

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The superbugs are coming, the superbugs are coming. But the damage they do can be limited -- if we wise up.

Tuesday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a news conference to warn us of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. These "nightmare bacteria" resist all or nearly all antibiotics and present a growing danger to nursing home and hospital patients nationally.

CRE present a threefold threat: They overpower practically all treatments, they can turn other bacteria in the body into drug-resistant superbugs, and they kill about half the patients infected. What should tamp down the panic a bit is that they don't generally kill healthy people, wreaking havoc only on the ill and vulnerable elderly.

Strains of Enterobacteriaceae resistant to antibiotics increased fourfold over the past decade, but there are ways we can contain them.

Only six states require medical facilities to report incidents of CRE, and New York isn't one. All states should. The bacteria are spread by person-to-person contact, mostly via hands. Hands have to be washed. The personnel in medical facilities have to get compulsive about this, and anyone who sees unwashed hands coming toward them or someone else must howl in protest. And we need to stop requesting antibiotics for every itch and sniffle. That's how bacteria become resistant.

The superbugs are coming but we have some control over how bad the impact will be. We need to exercise it.

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