February 18th, 2009
10:35 AM ET

Here’s why you should be scared of superbugs

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

Imagine getting what you think is a simple urinary tract infection. You are young, healthy and antibiotics have worked just fine in the past. Unfortunately, in this case, the infection starts to spread. You have flank pain and the doctor starts to look a little concerned. “The infection is in the kidneys,” he says. Your friends and family watch in horror as the infection spreads further and starts to overwhelm your immune system. Doctors call it sepsis, and you lapse into first a stupor and then unconsciousness. While you are in a coma, surgeons approach your family and inform them that gangrene has set in to your hands and feet: The only treatment is amputation. In the end, none of it works and your body gives in. That was the story of Mariana Bridi and her fight against a superbug, known as a gram negative bacteria.  (Watch Dr. Gupta's report on superbugs)

Most people think of MRSA, methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, when they hear superbug, but there is something out there poised to be just as big a problem. These gram negative bacteria have long names like "acinetobacter baumanii," and "klebsiella pneumoniae." No doubt, gram negative bacteria can be tough to treat. If you look at one under a microscope (look here), these bacteria are encased in a double protective membrane. They also release enzymes when attacked that chew up many antibiotics. As things stand now, there are very few antibiotics that work, and patients aren’t left with many options.

For the time being, most of these gram negative superbugs are relegated to hospitals, but there are a couple of things that are concerning. One is that patients move back and forth so much between hospitals, rehab centers and home, the bacteria can hitch a ride and soon find their way around the community. Another issue was pointed out by Dr. Helen Boucher, the lead author of this study.  Because antibiotics are not lifelong drugs like those used to treat diabetes or hypertension, there is not as much interest from pharmaceutical companies in developing them and it is harder to get patients into clinical trials. Bottom line, there aren’t a lot of options in the pipeline.

Certainly, the basics still apply. If you are in a hospital, you need to make sure to exercise especially good infection control. You don’t want one of these superbugs taking a leap from a contaminated hospital floor onto your skin. This is also a good time to remind people to use antibiotics judiciously in the community. No, most colds simply don’t require antibiotics, as they are caused by viruses.

Have you ever had an infection with a superbug or known someone who has had one? As these bacteria become increasingly resistant to treatment, any suggestions on how you think we can get things under control?

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.