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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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A “Superbug” Resistant to Most Antibiotics

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Someone goes into the hospital to get better and instead comes out with a potentially deadly “superbug” infection. It shouldn’t happen, but it does, and it seems to be on an upward spiral.

Nearly 180 patients at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center may have been exposed to a potentially deadly bacteria from contaminated medical scopes. Seven patients have been confirmed to date, with two deaths already linked to the outbreak. The patients were exposed to Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, (CRE), during endoscopic procedures between October 2014 and January 2015. CRE refers to a family of drug-resistant bacteria that can cause infections of the bladder or lungs, leading to coughing, fever or chills. If the infection spreads to a person’s bloodstream, the bacteria can contribute to death in up to half of seriously infected patients because some strains are resistant to most known antibiotics. Those most at risk are patients requiring devices such as a ventilator, urinary catheter, or intravenous catheter, and patients who are taking long courses of certain antibiotics.

UCLA said that infections may have been transmitted through two endoscopes used during the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic and bile-duct problems, despite being sterilized according to the manufacturer’s specifications. After discovering the bacteria in one patient and tracing the problem to the two endoscopes, public health authorities were immediately notified. Patients treated between October 2014 and January 2015 are being notified and sent free home-testing kits that UCLA will analyze.

The outbreak is the latest in a string of similar incidents nationwide that has health officials scrambling for a solution. The family of “superbugs” made headlines two years ago when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned they were spreading. Since 2012, there have been about a half-dozen outbreaks affecting up to 150 patients in Illinois, Pennsylvania and most recently in Seattle. Last month, Virginia Mason Medical Center reported that at least 35 patients were sickened, and 11 died, by contaminated endoscopes from 2012 to 2014, although it was unclear whether the infection played a role in their deaths because many of the patients were already critically ill. Since the outbreak, Virginia Mason has instituted a new quarantine process that sets the endoscopes aside for 48 hours so evidence of any bacterial growth can be found before reusing them. Will it be enough?

Are hospitals, medical-device companies and regulators doing enough to protect patient safety? Some patient-safety advocates say no; that regulators and industry officials have been too slow to respond. Medical experts say some scopes can be difficult to disinfect through conventional cleaning because of their design, so bacteria are transmitted from patient to patient. While the CDC said it hasn’t found any breaches in cleaning protocol at hospital outbreaks, the problem probably is more complicated than just a design issue.

With an estimated more than 500,000 endoscopic procedures performed each year in the U.S, doctors, hospital leaders and public health must take action now to stop these deadly infections from spreading. No one should be exposed to life-threatening infections due to the negligence of improper sterility procedures or poor manufacturer design. These incidents are entirely preventable. How many more cases may surface? In how many more hospitals across the country?

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.