Untreatable ‘superbugs’

This petri dish culture plate was inoculated with a “Clostridium difficile” bacteria. It causes deadly diarrhea and has becoming increasingly resistant to all available antibiotics.

Earlier this year, at a small Washington, D.C., conference designed to prepare journalists for the threat of Ebola in the United States, a high-ranking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist admitted that his job tends to keep him up at night.

But it’s not Ebola that Dr. Michael Bell really worries about.

“We have essentially untreatable bacteria floating around our communities,” he said.

These so-called “superbugs,” with names like “Clostridium difficile” and “carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae,” are becoming increasingly resistant to any available antibiotics.

A February report in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates “C. diff” alone infected 500,000 people in 2011 and killed nearly 30,000 of them.

The South Carolina health department, which started tracking “C. diff” cases for the first time in January, reports nearly 1,000 people tested positive for it in less than three months, a quarter of them in the Lowcountry. Medicare requires hospitals to track “C. diff” cases, too.

While fewer cases are popping up in Charleston hospitals compared to the national average, there are no promising, sure-fire solutions for treating the bacteria.

The Obama administration announced in late March an aggressive strategy to fight these antibiotic-resistant bugs, but Bell estimates we’re still 10 years removed from new, useful drugs.

Some patients require several rounds of powerful antibiotics to combat “C. diff,” which causes severe diarrhea and which Bell said turns your guts into “hamburger” meat. Others die from it. “This is frankly a terrifying thing,” he said. “C. diff” will not clear on its own.

Even scarier, these bacteria, which have historically thrived in hospitals, are becoming more common in the larger health care community. You can catch “C. diff” by visiting your primary care doctor’s office, or your dentist, or your parents’ nursing home.

Researchers determined in the February report that 66 percent of infections they studied were health care-associated, but only 24 percent were “onset during hospitalization.”

Thousands of patients are contracting “C. diff” somewhere outside their hospital.

“They’re not in a hospital, but they’re visiting health care sites, like a dentist or a traditional clinic,” said Dr. Danielle Scheurer, the Medical University of South Carolina’s chief quality officer.

“The real problem with ‘C. diff’ is it’s very hardy outside the body,” she said. “It has the ability to form these spores that ... live outside the body for a long time.”

Antibacterial gels don’t work against the spores, she said.

“It is all about hand washing,” Scheurer said. She said soap and warm water are essential and that hand washing — the right way — should take at least 15 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing the “ABCs.”

Patients who regularly take antibiotics are also more prone to contracting the bacteria, so it’s especially important to limit the number of antibiotics you take, she said.

Any antibiotic “kills off your good bacteria and allows ‘C. diff’ to flourish,” she said. “It’s horrible. It’s relentless ... It’s sad to think that in an industrialized country like the United States you can die from diarrhea.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.