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Drug-Resistant Superbug May Be More Widespread Than Previously Thought, Scientists Say

Update Date: Jan 18, 2017 08:10 AM EST

The superbug menace has affected many people worldwide. Now, one family of multi-drug resistant bacteria, known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae or CRE, is spreading more widely than previously thought, a new study says.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Broad Institute sampled CRE from hospitalized patients from three Boston-area hospitals and one California hospital to determine the frequency and characteristics of outbreaks. They also wanted to know if there is evidence for transfer of strains within and between hospitals.

Alarming Findings

They found that the transmission of these bacteria from one person to another may be occurring without symptoms. Moreover, they discovered a wide spectrum of CRE species and a wide variety of genetic traits enabling CRE to resist antibiotics. Worse, these traits are found to be transferring easily among various CRE species.

Thus, the study suggests that the spread of the superbug is more widespread than previously thought.

"While the typical focus has been on treating sick patients with CRE-related infections, our new findings suggest that CRE is spreading beyond the obvious cases of the disease. We need to look harder for this unobserved transmission within our communities and healthcare facilities if we want to stamp it out," William Hanage, senior author of the study, said in a press release.

What Can Be Done?

The researchers also found a "riot of diversity" among CRE species and carbapenem resistance genes. The transfer of the resistance genes from one species to another would make the bacteria to continuously evolve.

"The best way to stop CRE making people sick is to prevent transmission in the first place," Hanage said.

"If it is right that we are missing a lot of transmissions, then only focusing on cases of disease is like playing Whack-a-Mole; we can be sure the bacteria will pop up again somewhere else," he added.

The Threat Of CRE Species

In a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a woman from Nevada has died after being infected by CRE, which made her resistant to all known antibiotics in the United States. Her death is a reminder of how potent and powerful drug-resistant bacteria are.

According to ABC, the CDC characterized CRE infections as an urgent threat, which means the bacteria are considered an immediate public health threat that requires urgent action. In a year, the bacteria cause about 9,000 drug-resistance infections and 600 related deaths.

Despite most CRE bacteria still responding to one or more antibiotics, the one that infected the 70-year-old woman is an extremely rare case.

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