Scientists race to stop the spread of deadly superbugs

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Drug-resistant infections
A registered nurse at a VA hospital in Miami pulled on rubber gloves while attending to emergency patients in 2007.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last week the Center for Disease Control released new evidence showing that drug-resistant bacteria are on the rise in U.S. hospitals. Although the numbers are still quite low, many officials warn that the implications of the data may be huge. Four percent of hospitals saw at least one of these cases in the first six months of 2012, up from 1 percent of hospitals in 2002.

Read the post-show takeaway

Half the patients whose blood becomes infected with such bacteria die. Hospitals are struggling to enact policies that will help keep patients safe.

Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, wrote in The Daily Beast of the public's dangerous and extreme attitudes toward the medical community:

The demonization of health care has occurred simultaneously with our deepening fascination of the promise of tomorrow, an almost religious belief that medicine is just inches away from conquering just about everything. These two fantastic extremes pervert reality with equal force and fully obscure the truth about medical care in 2013: we are neither in a hell of ineptitude and willful neglect nor just inches from the next great golden age of health. And though hospitals are complicated, difficult places to spend time, the view that, to preserve health, it is safer to avoid care than to seek it is a dangerous and troubling delusion.

THE TAKEAWAY: In the hospital, be your own advocate.

Imagine this: You're in the hospital, recovering from an operation. Your surgeon stops by to check up on how you're doing and to see whether the incision is healing properly. Before he can lay a hand on you, you stop him with a question:

"Excuse me, Doctor. Did you wash your hands?"

Kerri Miller took a call during the show from a woman who had contracted an infection while in the hospital for a mastectomy. She had been told to expect a recovery period of about six weeks. Instead, she contracted an infection that dragged her recovery out to two years.

As a result, the caller is frightened of hospitals — and now she needs more surgery. She's made it her practice to ask medical personnel whether they have washed their hands, but one of her doctors says she's being unreasonable.

Dr. Kent Sepkowitz disagrees.

"I think you need to bring all those concerns to your surgeon," he said. "We used to have a button that all of us wore, saying 'Ask me if I washed my hands.' We beg patients to be active in their care, and we absolutely respect when they do bug us — did we wash our hands, did we do this, did we do that? Maybe it's a New York thing, where everybody's in each other's face all the time, but I think that's part of patient care. You need to be very direct with your surgeon and raise your concerns and articulate them."

When a member of his own family is in the hospital, Sepkowitz said, he takes on the watchdog role himself. "It would be nice if we didn't have to do that," he said. "But I think it's part of modern patient care, that you advocate for that and you have a family member who advocates for it. And you don't allow stuff to happen that you don't want to happen."

LEARN MORE ABOUT SUPERBUGS:

"Why I'm not worried about dying from a superbug, and you shouldn't be, either." Sepkowitz writes that "your chances of infection are microscopic." (Daily Beast)

"The rise of superbugs called 'apocalyptic scenario.'" A British health official says that routine infections could become deadly in the future. (LiveScience.com)

"CDC sounds alarm on deadly, untreatable superbugs." An illustration showing how bacteria become drug-resistant. (USA Today)

"CRE tops list of scary superbugs." CRE, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, so far has only been seen in hospitals. (ABC News)

"We seem to be losing the race against superbugs." Are we putting enough money into development of new antibiotics? (Mother Jones)

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