March 28th, 2011
04:42 PM ET

Superbug found in California hospitals

A deadly superbug, thought to be rare on the West Coast, is appearing in large numbers in Southern California, according to a new study.

In seven months last year, there were 356 cases of carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae (CRKP), according to the study by the Los Angeles County Department of Health. The cases were in health care facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. People outside such facilities were not affected.

CRKP has been officially reported in 36 states, but health officials expect it’s in the 14 other states as well, where reporting is not required.

Only one antibiotic, called colistin, is effective against CRKP, and it doesn’t always work and can cause kidney damage, according Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for health care associated infection prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s not known how many people died in L.A. County from the bacteria, but previous outbreaks have shown a 35% death rate, according to an article published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This is the first time CRKP has been studied in L.A. County and the infection rate was “unexpectedly high,” according to a press release by the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. The study will be presented at the group’s annual meeting next week.

The study authors noted they’re not sure why CRKP is so prevalent.

“We do not know if the presence of CRKP in these long-term acute care settings is the result of improper care, or has more to do with the population they serve,” says Dr. Dawn Terashita, a medical epidemiologist with L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Patients with CRKP tend to be elderly, have multiple health problems, and have a catheter or are on a respirator– foreign objects that can become breeding grounds for bacteria.

Large outbreaks of CRKP have been documented in the United States, Greece, and Israel.

CRKP, and other infections in the same family, are a “huge threat, precisely because of how resistant and how lethal it is, and how readily it can spread within health care facilities,” says Dr. Mitchell Schwaber, director of Israel’s National Center for Infection Control.

Some hospitals have seen infection rates decline when they enforce staff hand washing rules, remove ventilators and catheters as quickly as possible, and take other precautions.

Patients and their families can help decrease the risk of infection by asking staff to wash their hands and by following other Empowered Patient tips for staying safe in the hospital.

CNN's Miriam Falco contributed to this report

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