We have a problem and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
CRE (carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae) is a superbug picked up in hospitals – for now – that kills about half the people it infects, roughly equivalent to the vicious Ebola virus.
For the past few days media outlets across the U.S. have been reporting on a CRE outbreak at the University of California hospital system in Los Angeles. So far 2 people have died, 5 more have become infected, and a further 179 are suspected of having been exposed to it and are being monitored.
But the real story isn’t in the numbers – at least not yet – it’s in how these people became infected, i.e. through the use of a medical device called an endoscope. The scope has a long fiber-optic cable with a light and camera at the end so doctors can see inside the body. It’s inserted down the throat into the stomach and then into the intestines. It’s used to treat digestive-system problems from cancer to gallstones, and it does a very good job.
But there’s a problem. The GI tract is lined with a host of different germs. As the endoscope is withdrawn from the body those tiny invisible germs adhere to the scope and can then transferred to the next patient the scope is used on.
But isn’t the scope cleaned between patients? Yes, and according to FDA-approved manufacturer’s guidelines which the hospitals have apparently followed. However, the issue is more insidious: parts of the scope are so small and intricately designed that you simply can’t access all the areas you need to to properly clean it. So the bugs remain on the scope ready to be transferred to some unsuspecting patient down the line.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. Two more facts bring us to the heart of it.
One, the endoscope is used across the country on about 500,000 patients every year, so why would the problem arise only in L.A.?
Two, if the GI tract is lined with oodles of different germs why would the scope only pick up one of them, CRE?
A little digging reveals that the endoscope-induced CRE problem isn’t confined to L.A. For example, at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, between 2012 and 2014, at least 35 patients fell ill and 11 died after contracting a CRE infection via the contaminated endoscopes.
Similar cases involving a half dozen outbreaks and about 150 patients have also occurred in health facilities in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
And we’re learning that “almost certainly,” the endoscope is transmitting other kinds of infections as well. Infection control specialist Marcia Patrick says these cases tend to go unnoticed because doctors simply prescribe antibiotics and don’t give much thought to where or how the illness was contracted.
That’s why Patrick says the reported cases of CRE are “probably the tip of an iceberg,” and adds, ominously: “But we don’t know how big that iceberg is.”