Superbug strikes in Maryland

Tragedy struck the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center when a superbug took the life of a boy from Minnesota who had come to the Maryland center for treatment.

The bug, an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae, began its rampage at NIH last summer, claiming six – now seven – victims. This case is cause for increased concern, because it’s the first new case of infection since January.

The boy arrived at the NIH in April to be treated for complications ensuing after a bone marrow transplant. He was especially vulnerable to the bug due to a genetic defect that crippled his immune system, and also because of the steroids prescribed to treat his transplant complications.

Not exactly a superhero, but a superbug. Graphic by Steve Furtado.

After the initial outbreak, the hospital attempted to contain the spread of the superbug by building a wall around infected patients, removing plumbing that may have harbored the bacteria, hiring monitors to ensure staff washed their hands properly, and spraying vaporized disinfectant into patients’ rooms. Until this latest infection, it seemed their efforts had been successful.

Initial treatment attempts found the boy’s attacker vulnerable to one antibiotic, but after a week, the bug grew resistant to that as well. The NIH attempted treatment with an experimental antibiotic, but that proved ineffective as well.

John Gallin, a physician-researcher who directs the clinical center, suggested the boy caught the bug from a patient on the same unit. He also mentioned the arrival earlier this year of two patients carrying potentially drug-resistant strains of Klebsiella. While neither of those strains has shown signs of spreading, one of the patients had been treated at two other hospitals in Maryland before transferring to the NIH. Gallin would not tell The Washington Post the names of the hospitals.

This superbug provides a frightening reminder of the dangers of hospital-borne infections. Around 99,000 U.S. deaths per year are attributed to this scourge, and approximately 6 percent of American hospitals are dealing with superbug outbreaks.

Perhaps most frighteningly, the NIH is not required to report outbreaks of Klebsiella to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and did not make the initial superbug outbreak public knowledge until months after it had taken several lives.

Despite the advances antibiotics have allowed humanity, superbugs like this one serve as a reminder that even as new cures are discovered, new dangers are arising. The medical world has a responsibility to keep the people it serves updated and to aid them in making informed decisions, in order to avoid these dangers as much as possible.