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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Robert Curtis

    I thought you would be interested in recent report about a sea sponge extract.

    Sea Sponge Extract Conquers Resistant Bacteria
    Posted by kdawson on Sunday February 15, @03:40PM
    from the soaking-it-in dept.
    Medicine Science
    Science News has an article on research into a compound found in a particular kind of sea sponge that seems to have the ability to restore antibiotics' effectiveness against resistant bacteria. The hope is that, since the compound is not itself deadly or even harmful to bacteria, it may skew the antibiotic-bacteria arms race in our favor. "Chemical analyses of the sponge's chemical defense factory pointed to a compound called algeferin. Biofilms, communities of bacteria notoriously resistant to antibiotics, dissolved when treated with fragments of the algeferin molecule. And new biofilms did not form. So far, the algeferin offshoot has, in the lab, successfully treated bacteria that cause whooping cough, ear infections, septicemia and food poisoning. The compound also works on... [MRSA] infections, which wreak havoc in hospitals. 'We have yet to find one that doesn't work,' says [one of the researchers]."

    February 18, 2009 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. MattJ

    There is an alternative to antibiotics. According to Georgian scientists, it works very well.

    It is called "phage therapy".

    Google "phage therapy center Georgia" to read all about it. Unfortunately, since an American company bought them, the Georgian center has started charging sky-high prices for their therapies! But it really does work.

    February 18, 2009 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. sean brizendine

    dr. gupta this sounds like a major threat, so why is big pharma not tackling the problem? must be money as usual because there is little profit in cures.
    "sean in santa rosa"

    February 18, 2009 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. elizabeth graul

    i contracted mrsa after i had a knee replacement. I had 7 surgeries plus iv antibiotics to try to save my leg all in a 18 month period. nothing worked and last year i ended up having my leg amputated. my life has been forever changed because i had no idea that a surgery could actually make me sickier.

    February 18, 2009 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Rosemarie Castro-Recio

    My Mother had a small bowel resection. The surgeon told me that she would have diarrhea, for a while, until the intestine adjusted to it's new length. She was discharged to a rehab facility. The facility discharged her and she continued to have diarrhea which I did not question because of what the surgeon told me.
    She collapsed in her home one week later. She was in metabolic acidos, acute renal failure, respiratory arrest, suffered a MI, was dehydrated and anemic. Only then did I learn that the reason for her diarrhea was C-Diff. I had never heard of C-diff. Everyone should be aware of this horrible hospital aquired infection which is killing thousands of people every year
    Why aren't there public awareness ads on television informing people of the danger of contracting this deadly infection?
    My mother died a horrible death because I was not informed.

    February 18, 2009 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Carol

    I'm 3mos. pregnant and i have been on antibotic for a urinary tract infection for 5 days so i stopped taken it, 2 days later i got the urinary tract infection again so i took the rest of my medicine and i still feel like i have the infection. Should i be worried?

    February 18, 2009 at 18:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. julia pilas

    I saw your segment today on MRSA and would like to add – if you should ever want ot do a follow up on MRSA I would love for you to contact me. I have written a book called "On The Street Where You Live". It was featured as a news release on cnn.com on January 13 and can be viewed on my web site http://www.juliapilasauthor.com. It is a true story and full account of the many hospital improprieties that lead to the infection as well as its effects and ultimate death of a loved one. I have also given several examples of changes that should be made by the hospitals so that we might have a fighting chance to survive a hospital stay. My book is one that should be read by all so that they are fully aware of what they will be up against should they be unlucky enough to have to be admitted into a hospital. I look forward to hearing from you. 973-714-3363

    February 18, 2009 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Janet Grooms

    My mom (age 90) died last July in Alaska from a C-diff infection. We were traveling; I took her to a hospital emergency room. When the C-diff was diagnosed, they couldn't get rid of her fast enough. They wanted to hush everything up. The medical examiner wouldn't even tell the truth on the death certificate. So, what can we do? First, we can quit hushing up diagnoses of superbugs. In Canada a diagnosis of C-diff must be reported; we need the same law in the United States. Doctors and hospitals are afraid of being accused of poor sanitary practices, but hiding the problem isn't going to make it go away. Alcohol based cleaners will not kill C-diff; only chlorine bleach will kill the bacteria. So, hospital personnel should replace alcohol based cleaners with chlorine based cleaners. That would be a good start. But the most important thing is for doctors and hospitals to start being truthful and tackle the problem head-on. My dear mom died less than 48 hours from when she was released from the emergency room. I will always believe that, with hydration and treatment, she could have been saved. But no one cared, and I will never forgive them. Neither of us had ever HEARD of C-diff.

    February 19, 2009 at 05:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. M.

    I have been a nurse for nearly a decade now, and routinely care for patients who have either MRSA, VRE, or C. diff. It is not unusual for nearly 50% of the patients on our floor to have one or more of these infections. Unfortunately, despite the increasing prevalence of articles such as this, the general public seems to remain unaware of the risks of these super bugs. Precautions are clearly posted for our positive patients, and reinforced by the nurses, yet visitors routinely ignore them and then place themselves and their families at risk for contracting these bugs. Honestly, I just don't know what more can be done. Clearly the attempt being made by the media and health care professionals to educate the general public are falling on deaf ears overall. I cared for a patient with VISA (MRSA which was also of intermediate response to Vancomycin) and can remember telling visitors "Look, the NURSES are scared of this bug, PLEASE do what the precaution signs tell you to do."

    As a side note, my sons' pediatrician has guidelines for antibiotic usage (from the CDC, I believe) posted in every one of her exam rooms, along with explanations in layman's terms as to when they will be prescribed, when they will not, and the rationale for the decision making process. I'm sure that there are many parents who are angered by leaving her office without antibiotics for viral infections, but I truly appreciate the effort which her office is putting forth to help curb unnecessary antibiotic usage.

    Perhaps education needs to begin in the schools at an early age, when they introduce hand hygiene, along with informational brochures sent home from the schools for the parents. Something has to be done, and soon, with the increase in the prevalence of these bugs and as they continue to become even more resistant. Keep trying, Dr. Gupta and all the rest of you, and maybe people will eventually listen.

    February 19, 2009 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Brenda Driggs

    Dear Dr.

    Talk about super bugs....I wish someone could help my sister who has beeni in and out of ICU for over 10 months (has never left hospital in 10 months). Talk about a long story. She had urinary problems, her thyroid shut down, her kidneys stopped, her pulmonary muscles quit....they intubated her and put her on a ventilator...the doctors said she had mersa and gave us only a 5% chance she would survive. She has been in the hospital in Las Vegas ever since. Everytime she gets better where they want to wean her from ventilator, she comes down with another staff infection...this has continued for all these months. Same thing...she gets somewhat better then down with another staff infection. Each time she comes down with a staff infection, they put her back on SIMV and we have to start all over again. She has suffered so much and gone through so many tests but they can't seem to get her well enough so she could go home. What do we do? How come there is so much staff infections in hospitals? She keeps getting these super bugs. Can you help? What needs to be done to get her better? The longer she is in the hospital, the weaker she gets...she has not been out of the bed in 10 months...the longer she is on the ventilator, the chances of her getting off diminish....all because of these staff infections and super bugs.

    February 19, 2009 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Tree

    On 2/18 I heard a very interesting presentation on Multi-Drug-Resistant Organisms by Dr. Arjun Srinivasan at the CDC.
    He noted:
    Why is Antibiotic Resistance Increasing in the Hospital Setting?
    * Increasingly complex healthcare delivery systems
    *Overuse use of antibiotics
    *Increasing prevalence of MDROs colonization pressure
    * Increasing risks of environmental contamination
    * Lack of resources/institutional will to enforce recommendations

    He repeated the CDC/HICPAC Recommendations to Prevent Transmission of MDROs, which I hope your readers will research for themselves.

    The key component of the Recommendations is education. I am too often shocked that healthcare professionals are unaware of the science underlying infection control, never mind that 90% of the public are considered healthcare illiterate. Is hand hygiene out of style? Many of these bugs (including C-diff) can be killed with ordinary soap and water. But I guess that's not as sexy as algeferin or chlorhexidine soap. However, whenever there has been increased hand hygiene education, infection rates have gone down.

    Handwashing is one of the most practical and effective ways of of preventing the spread of disease – WHO

    Would you wash your hands if you thought you were taking a subversive stand against corrupt and greedy powers? Very well. Hand washing education has been supressed by greedy corporations who want to spend lots of money on healthcare.

    Make sure you tell your friends – handwashing is your way of sticking it to the man!

    February 19, 2009 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Terri

    We talk about "super bugs" and people think of them only being in the Hospital- or as with C-Diff being associated with older people… I was diagnosed with C-Diff at 26. After taking an ANTIBIOTIC FOR MRSA, YES… CA-MRSA- look it up they are now calling it community associated MRSA because I was not in a hospital. I suffered for 2 years with C-Diff, and also developed Pseudomembranous Colitis, it is very painful and it took 2 years of my life. For an antibiotic. But- the infection from the MRSA could have taken my LIFE- Everyone that runs to the Dr’s to get an antibiotic to treat a cold- or an ear infection (yes even those) when they aren’t necessary! I get so frustrated when people expect me to take my children to the Dr all the time to get antibiotics… I will not… Repeat NOT have them take antibiotics unless it is NECESSARY!!! Colds & FLUs’ are virus’ and will not be affected by an antibiotic.

    February 23, 2009 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Marie Zarankevich

    Fabric of Nature

    I read something about species, diseases, and extinction which seemed to indicate that diseases are nothing more than natural predators, the same as lions hunting at the edges of antelope herds. The scientist conducting a particular survey, describing significant human interference with a population of animals, found that this did not appear to affect the population numbers whatsoever. He was genuinely surprised by the fact that, although large numbers of these creatures died, the population seemed unaffected. Obviously, there was some sort of compensatory mechanism at work. There was absolutely no way for him to account for this fact. Extrapolating this concept from here:

    This may mean that the balances of nature are not unmoderated. If it is indeed self-moderating, this would indicate that nature itself is a whole cloth which cannot be separated out into individual bits. A single element cannot be removed without affecting the entire fabric. It may mean that any interference or extinction (including bacterial and viral species) caused by human activity will bring about a state of imbalance, which will then provoke a distinct compensatory response. This may be the single aspect of modern science that we can not dodge.

    Because humans no longer have predators that are large in size, nature may have balanced things out by providing many diseases, just to keep the cloth intact. Diseases are then our predators, helping keep the fabric of nature controlled and in balance. Only, we're defeating all of them. So, nature then takes another tack, by creating super-infections which we cannot cure. This pattern does not lead in a good direction.

    A good visual analogy would be that we have awakened from sleep, and found ourselves strangled by our own blankets. If we do not stop fighting blindly, we will choke to death in our collective beds. If all of these problems and difficulties we are experiencing are caused by our own actions, the only solution might be to cease battling disease so hard, and let nature do its work. Perhaps holding very, very still, and allowing Big Mama (Mother Nature) to come in and clean up, to her own satisfaction. Continuing the battle could well spell disaster, for all. If we continue with this WAR, we are going to lose, because nature has all the weapons in its arsenal, and we will run out of bullets sooner or later.

    Thank you for your attention,

    Marie Zarankevich
    32 Shore Drive
    Ithaca, NY 14850


    February 24, 2009 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Stuart

    This is a response to Carol the pregnant women who posted something before me. It is VERY important for you and everyone else to take the antibiotics for the full length the doctor prescribes. Even if your feeling better halfway through. This is because in your body you have an infection (not all gram-negative bacteria are resistant to antibiotics) and the antibiotics will kill all the bacteria that ARE NOT resistant to it. Then your immune system can kill off the rest of the bacteria. When you don't take the antibiotic for the specified time then the bacteria who didn't die grow and when you are put onto the antibiotics then all the bacteria is resistant and it overwhelms your body!

    February 24, 2009 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jeanne Warp

    Excuse me, but did I read that entry correctly? Pharmacuetical companies are not interested in developing new antibiotcs. How can that be? Don't they HAVE to work on cures new and mutating illnesses? Please don't tell me that they are only in it for the profit, and not the betterment for humanity.

    March 12, 2009 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. RaiulBaztepo

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I'v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

    March 28, 2009 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. v.gerrard, Dublin , Ireland

    Would probiotics not help with any of these superbugs...especially clostridium difficile as it's made up of millions of good bacteria? Also, real sourced Manuka Honey UMF15 or over...I heard this could have beneficial properties towards "Superbugs". I used it myself after an incident in a hospital. Here is what happened. I attended out-patients a few month's ago & when my name was called to go forward to the consultant, in my haste I rushed up my seat & hit my lower knee off a steel section coming out from the seating. It hurt a bit at the start, but in my talk to the consultant about other issues I forgot to say anything to him about my somewhat accident. Next day it was all raw & sore & I had to have a tetanus injection plus antibiotic cream to rub on it. The doctor I attended told me it might take weeks to heal, as it was quite an open wound & she gave me instructions as to the dressings and how to dress it. So I decided to put some of the manuka honey UMF12 onto the dressing with the cream & within ten days or so it was healed up. I told her what I did & she said she herself was amazed at the healing. What do you think, yourself? I might add, Ireland has a big problem with such bugs for the past few years & it seems to have got worse when Religious Order's gave up the running of hospital's to the Government. Nuns were a sicker (pardon the Irish pun) but it means fastidious about proper & routine hygiene. Cheers for now.

    Oh by the way I’m a big fan of CNN.

    March 28, 2009 at 23:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Harrison Ward

    my dad suffered from colitis a couple of years ago, this disease is quite painful"~;

    July 12, 2010 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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    i was suffering from colitis a couple of months ago and believe me, the pain is horrible -'`

    December 4, 2010 at 11:07 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 18, 2012 at 11:32 | Report abuse | Reply

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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.