Superbugs: Five Things You Need to Know

February 13, 2017

Last month, a woman in Nevada died after she contracted a bacterial infection that was resistant to all 26 available antibiotics, including one that is used as a last line of defense. The term used to describe her infection was “superbug”. You might be wondering whether you or a loved one is at risk of contracting something similar. We talked with Maggie Randazzo, PharmD, clinical pharmacy coordinator and co-chair of the Antibiotic Stewardship Committee at Shore Medical Center, to get the superbug facts.

  1. What is a superbug? A superbug is a bacterium that is resistant to many different antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria changes in a way that prevents an antibiotic from killing it. There is no one superbug – in fact, any species of bacteria can become a superbug through genetic mutation. The superbug contracted by the woman in Nevada was especially concerning because typically that bacteria responds to at least one antibiotic, but the strain she had was resistant to all of the antibiotics that we have available in the US.
  2. Who is at risk of contracting a superbug? Superbugs are not something you can just catch from someone walking down the street.  They are more likely to strike in patients with compromised immune systems or those who stay for a long time in a hospital or nursing home.  Many hospital procedures involve contact with the bacteria inside our body, which is why it is so important for hospitals to maintain the most sanitary conditions.  If your loved one is in the hospital and you are concerned, advocate for removing any unnecessary IV lines or catheters, etc. and ensure that everyone coming in and out of the room is washing their hands.
  3. How can you avoid contracting a superbug? Stay healthy! Keep your hands, home and workspace as clean as possible. Make sure your physician always washes his or her hands before he or she treats you. Don't always assume you need an antibiotic – they don't work for viruses like the common cold, and misuse and abuse of antibiotics is one of the reasons bacteria have become more resistant to antibiotics. Finally, get vaccinated! You are more likely to acquire a superbug infection when your immune system is weakened from illnesses like the flu, pneumonia, or shingles.
  4. Are there any scientific advances on the horizon to combat superbugs? Unfortunately, the development of new antibiotics has slowed dramatically. There are a couple new agents for use in these patients, but hospitals have to make sure that they are also not misused or they too will become ineffective.
  5. How is Shore preventing the spread of harmful bacteria? Hand washing is a big deal at Shore, which patients and visitors can easily see. There is an antibacterial gel dispenser outside every patient room.  On our 5th floor, staff got creative with their hand washing campaign and placed cut-out hands with catchy slogans like “If you're not gellin', we're tellin'!” on their dispensers. Another hand washing campaign copies the style of the Uncle Sam army recruitment posters, with photos of smiling safety captains pointing at the viewer, demanding, “I want YOU to wash your hands for 15 seconds.” Shore also introduced an Antibiotic Stewardship Program that works to ensure the safe use of antibiotics throughout the hospital.  Shore's efforts in patient safety and the prevention of infection has been recognized by The Leapfrog Group, which has awarded the medical center with an “A” grade in patient safety for five consecutive rating periods, including the most recent award this past Fall.

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