Dangerous Untreatable Superbug on the Rise: Doctors

Doctors said Illinois appears to be ground zero for CRE cases in the United States

Global health experts are sounding the alarm on a nightmare superbug that is resistant to nearly all antibiotics. Doctors warn the bacterial infection is becoming more widespread with little to no treatment options available.

“If we have more and more people developing these kinds of infections, and without options, people will die,” said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, Medical Director of Infection Control at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s serious.” 

The World Health Organization in February published its first ever list of drug-resistant bacteria to advocate for new antibiotics that are urgently needed.

A group of dangerous bacteria, called Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, topped WHO’s list.

Local doctors said Illinois appears to be ground zero for CRE cases in the United States. The state was home to one of the largest outbreaks of CRE infections in the country.

In 2013, 39 patients were infected with the drug-resistant bacteria at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. A hospital spokesperson said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the outbreak to a tainted medical device. Two patients died.

Nationwide, Illinois leads in the number of CRE cases reported to the CDC, according to the center’s online reports.

“We have a very robust medical system. We have many large hospitals,” said Dr. Sameer J. Patel, Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “Whenever you have more medical care, you’re going to have more use of antibiotics, and therefore more resistance to organisms.”

Mandatory reporting of CRE has been in place in Illinois since November 2013. According to data collected by the Illinois Department of Health, areas west of Chicago saw a 27 percent increase in CRE from 2014 to 2015, which is the most current reporting year. The city of Chicago saw an 11 percent decrease in CRE.

CRE cases typically strike vulnerable populations, like the sick and elderly, who are already in healthcare facilities. 

According to a recent study by Cleveland-based University Hospitals, children are also at risk of superbugs. The study found admissions to children’s hospitals due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria increased seven fold between 2007 and 2015. 

Doctors said there are ways to help slow the spread of superbugs. 

“We need to be very, very careful about when we use antibiotics because that’s what leads to more resistance,” said Dr. Bleasdale. “It’s that antibiotics use over years that has led to the problem we have right now.” 

Doctors said most common infections, such as ear and sinus infections and bronchitis, are viral and will resolve on their own without antibiotics. 

“There’s an expectation that every fever or every cough needs an antibiotic,” said Dr. Patel. “Clinicians really need to be more judicious about antibiotic use.” 

Experts said parents and patients need to be more careful, too. 

But it’s a delicate balance for parents like Lindsey Kilsdonk of Glenview. 

“As a parent, you want your child better immediately and you want results to be immediate,” said Kilsdonk. 

Kilsdonk’s son Daniel, who is almost 2 years old, suffers from painful, chronic ear infections. She said Daniel has had more than 20 – about once every month. Kilsdonk said each time, doctors advise that Daniel wait up to a week to see if the infection clears up on its own. It hasn’t, and the family has had to use antibiotics for treatment. 

“The first line of antibiotics don’t work anymore, so now we are slowly increasing the strength of his antibiotics,” said Kilsdonk. “He’s only 2 years old, so he still has the rest of his life. You want to be able to have those stronger antibiotics for more severe infections, not just for an ear infection.” 

Daniel recently underwent surgery to insert tubes in his ears in hopes that decreases the need for antibiotics. 

“You want what’s best for your child, and you hope that the decisions you’re making today don’t have severe consequences down the road,” Kilsdonk said. 

Experts said antibiotic resistance is a global issue. According to doctors, drug-resistant bacteria is more prevalent in countries like India where antibiotics are sold over the counter. A sick patient who travels could bring the bacteria here.

Doctors also said regulation to reduce the overuse of antibiotics in raising farm animals will also reduce antibiotic use in communities.

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