“It’s heartbreaking,” said John Gallin, the physician-researcher who directs the clinical center. “What happened this summer was a very unfortunate case. All of these cases are hugely sad cases.”
The boy arrived in Bethesda in April after complications arose from a bone marrow transplant he received last year. His underlying condition — a severe genetic defect that crippled his immune system — increased his risk of acquiring the superbug, as did the steroids and other drugs the boy was given to combat complications from the transplant.
“We worried he was set up for a bad infection,” said Gallin.
On July 25, routine rectal swabs of patients for hospital-borne infections — a measure put in place during the worst of the outbreak last fall — detected the superbug in the boy.
Genetic analysis showed the boy’s strain matched that of the superbug that arrived last year. It eventually spread to 17 additional patients, of whom 11 died. Six of those deaths were directly attributed to the superbug by NIH staff. The NIH did not make the outbreak public until describing it in a scientific publication last month.
As the superbug spread last fall, NIH staff members built a wall to isolate infected patients, ripped out plumbing that harbored the bacteria, hired monitors to ensure doctors and nurses were properly scrubbing their hands and even blasted patients’ rooms with vaporized disinfectant.
By January, those measures had apparently halted the spread. For six months, no new patients became infected.
But in July, the boy tested positive for the superbug. Clinic staffers isolated him in the intensive-care unit and raced to treat the infection.
The boy’s superbug originally appeared vulnerable to one antibiotic, but after a week of therapy, the infection grew impervious to that drug, too, Gallin said. The NIH obtained an experimental antibiotic, but it also failed.
“This kid probably got this infection because a patient who was a carrier [of the superbug] was on the same unit,” said Gallin. “There was undoubtedly some intrahospital transmission despite our best efforts.”
Swabs picked up the superbug on a railing outside the boy’s room, but Gallin said it’s impossible to know whether the boy or someone else deposited it there.
Gallin said that earlier this year, two other patients arrived at the clinical center carrying different strains of potentially deadly drug-resistant Klebsiella. Neither of those strains has spread to other patients, Gallin said. One of those two patients was treated at two hospitals in Maryland before transferring to NIH.