OGDEN -- The Centers for Disease Control is warning about a deadly superbug that is nearly impossible to fight off, even with last-resort antibiotics.
Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, is on the rise and has been seen in medical facilities and nursing homes in 42 states including Utah, according to the CDC.
The rate of infection to date is 4 percent, which may seem small, but the CDC said the "nightmare bacteria" has increased four-fold in the last decade and is resistant to some of the strongest antibiotics, such as carbapenem, used as a last resort to fight deadly bacteria.
Enterobacteriaceae are a family of more than 70 bacteria known to live in the human gut, said Dustin Waters, infectious disease clinical pharmacist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden.
These bacteria can cause a whole range of problems, including pneumonia and infections in the urinary tract, bloodstream and wounds.
CRE thrives in hospitals and nursing homes, sickening already ill patients through catheters, ventilators and other equipment.
When the bacteria becomes resistant to carbapenems, Waters said, they are usually resistant to many of the antibiotics normally used to treat these infections, leaving doctors with few options.
"We have not had a problem here at McKay-Dee with CRE infections," Waters said. "According to the CDC, however, there have been confirmed infections due to CRE in Utah, as well as 41 other states."
CDC Director Thomas Frieden said it isn't often that his scientists come to him and say there's a serious problem and they need to sound an alarm.
"But that's exactly what we are doing today," he said during a news conference last week. "Our strongest antibiotics don't work, and patients are left with potentially untreatable infections."
"There is a concern that lack of infection-control practices can lead to widespread outbreaks," Waters said.
"It is likely that Utah will see an increase in CRE infections in the future, but right now, the problem is not widespread across the state. There is potential for these bacteria to spread to the community. How soon that will happen, no one is exactly sure."
The germs are spread from person to person, according to the CDC, often on the hands of health care professionals.
Frieden said all patients should ask their doctors and nurses to wash their hands before touching them and that patients shouldn't demand antibiotics for their illness.
There are several mechanisms by which bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, Waters said. The most commonly cited reason is antibiotic overuse. While overuse has led to resistance, the thought that too much antibiotic use causes all resistance oversimplifies the problem.
"Some bacteria, like CRE, produce enzymes or proteins that make the antibiotics ineffective," Waters said.
Bacteria can communicate with different species of bacteria and essentially transfer genetic material that makes the other bacteria resistant, he said. All in all, bacterial resistance is complex and there is no single cause.
According to the CDC, hospitals and nursing homes should take precautions through hand washing, education, minimizing the use of IV lines and catheters, and isolating patients who have the infections.
Visitors should also be vigilant about washing their hands before and after visiting a patient.