Q&A: What The “Superbug” Infections Mean For You

What you need to know. A Q&A with NBC4’s Dr. Bruce Hensel about the "superbug" bacteria that led to two deaths and several infections at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center:

Question: How bad is this bug?

Dr. Bruce: CRE is not dangerous at all when it lives in the intestine, its normal habitat. But it can be deadly when it gets into the blood, which may have happened in some cases. Most antibiotics don’t work on it. Reports say it’s getting more common and up to 50 percent of people who get it in their blood may die.

Q: Who is in danger? Will it spread?

Dr. B: It doesn’t spread like the measles a flu or a cold. The only people in danger are people who had this specific procedure with a specific scope, called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, or ERCP.

During the procedure, a tube is put down the throat and pushed through the stomach to the intestine. Then a smaller tube comes out and explores the liver, bile ducts and pancreas.

This is only done on people who have problems in that area, and they are the only ones who are vulnerable. It won’t spread through the air from person to person.

Q: How did it get on the scope and why wasn’t it sterilized?

Dr. B: The scope is unique, highly specialized and tiny - the size of spaghetti - and even the maker warns about the difficulty of sterilizing it.

Q: So how can people protect themselves?

Dr. B: If told you need ECRP, ask if its really necessary. Ask how they sterilize their devices, including which scope will be used and how it is sterilized.

Q: Why would this happen at UCLA, which is such a high-level medical center?

Dr. B: That may be exactly the point. UCLA actually has great records in controlling bugs, and remember they found this themselves. But only high-level centers do procedures like this, and those are the places that have the most complications.

But, let’s be clear: it is a very small percentage of patients who have this procedure done and almost all have no problem. These procedures can save lives by finding things nothing else can find, so the risk has to be weighed against the benefit.

Remember, you’re only in danger if you had this particular procedure; not others like an Upper GI or colonoscopy.

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