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Potentially lethal 'superbug' spreading in Chicago hospitals

A potentially lethal germ resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics is spreading fast in Chicago health-care facilities, new research suggests.

This latest “superbug” is formed when common bacteria produce an enzyme called Klebsiella pneumoniae Carbapenemase, or KPC, that makes them resistant to a class of antibiotics used as a last resort when other treatments fail.

The number of Chicago hospitals and long-term care facilities reporting infections with these KPC-producing bacteria has increased 42 percent, from 26 to 37, between this year and last. In addition, the average number of patients who tested positive for KPC infections at each of these facilities increased from four to 10 during the same time period, according to a survey conducted by Rush University Medical Center and the Cook County Department of Public Health.

The survey, presented Friday at the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, indicates that while the number of KPC infections is still low, “the increase is quite sharp when you consider that we had the first identified case in Chicago in December 2007,” said Dr. Mary Hayden, co-author of the survey and director of clinical microbiology at Rush.

“Clearly, this is spreading quite rapidly, and now is really the time to try to control it so it doesn’t get to the point of MRSA and some of the others,” Hayden said, referring to the drug-resistant staph bacterium that started in hospitals but ultimately spread to community settings.

In some ways, KPC bacteria are “more worrisome” than MRSA, because there are fewer treatments available for patients who develop potentially deadly urinary tract infections or pneumonia caused by these bugs, Hayden said.

The bacteria, normally found in the human intestines, were first identified in the United States in 1999 and have since spread to at least 35 states. Studies suggest these germs kill 40 percent of the people they infect.

So far, KPC infections in Chicago have mostly been limited to immune-compromised patients in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.

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