'Superbug' outbreak not a threat to Los Angeles County public health

Exterior view of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 2014.
Exterior view of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 2014.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

A Los Angeles County health official says a "superbug" bacterial outbreak isn't a threat to the broader public.

"This outbreak is not a threat to public health," said Dr. Benjamin Schwartz.

Schwartz offered that assurance during a news conference Thursday afternoon. However, Schwartz says that CRE and other antimicrobial-resistant bacteria are emerging threats to the health of people in L.A., around the U.S. and around the world.

"Demanding an antibiotic when it’s not needed can induce these resistant organisms and lead to the spread of this problem," Schwartz said.

"We're very sorry about some of the anxiety and concern that this situation has posed for our patients as well as our community," said the UCLA Health System's Dr. Robert Cherry. "We have really taken this very seriously. We're concerned for the seven patients that were directly affected by this."

A day earlier, UCLA officials said nearly 180 patients at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center may have been exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria called CRE.

Seven of them got the infection and two of those people have died.

"First and foremost, our heart goes out to the people who were involved and the patients who passed away as a result of this infection," Dr. Zachary Rubin said at the Thursday news conference.

Hospital officials say they traced the infections to two endoscopic devices that were contaminated with the bacteria despite routine sterilization.

"There were two scopes that we most clearly identified as the suspect cases, but we're being very cautious and we're actually contacting all patients who underwent ERCP during that period of time between October 3rd and January 28th to ensure that nobody else was exposed — even if another scope was used on them," said Rubin.

Patients have been notified, the procedures stopped, the devices removed and sterilization procedures upgraded. The FDA released a statement Thursday recommending thorough cleaning of these scopes, which UCLA was already doing, and now they’re going beyond the recommendations to perform gas sterilization as well, Schwartz said.

In mid-December, one patient who had an endoscopic procedure "developed almost immediately an infection afterwards with an unusual organism," Rubin said at the Thursday news conference, "a bacteria that was resistant to a lot of strains of normally active antibiotics. So at that time, we actually initiated an investigation to determine if the patient had gotten an infection from the procedure itself."

When they did a deeper investigation, they “actually found that there were eight linked cases — one initial case, which was the source case, and then we eventually were able to determine the other patients had had ERCP with two scopes that were used in the initial case.”

"We get up every morning to help heal humankind, and we do that [alleviating] suffering and promoting health and delivering acts of kindness; when something like this happens it just really gets us in our gut," said Dr. David Feinberg at Thursday's press conference. "In no way did we want someone to come to UCLA or any health facility and be treated in a way where we make it worse than what you came in here for."

Manufacturer of device in 'superbug' outbreak faces probe

The company that manufactured the medical devices and supplied them to UCLA is being investigated for possible violations of false claims and anti-kickback laws.

The Olympus Corp. of the Americas, an arm of Japan's Olympus Corp., disclosed Feb. 6 that it has been under federal investigation since 2011 for possible violations of laws that typically ban improper payments to doctors or other customers.

A company statement says Olympus is talking with the Justice Department to resolve the case, and it warns the company's financial results could be "adversely affected."

Lawyer says 1 of LA superbug victims was teenage student

The lawyer for one of the people infected says his client is an 18-year-old student who remains hospitalized in grave condition.

Attorney Kevin Boyle says the teenager visited Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center last year for a procedure that involved using an endoscope to examine his pancreas.

The lawyer says his client was treated and released but soon became gravely ill and was hospitalized for 83 days. He was eventually sent home but relapsed and was readmitted. Boyle declined to release the teen's name or say what school he attends.

He says doctors linked the illness to an endoscope contaminated with the drug-resistant, potentially fatal CRE bacteria.

This story has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that 180 people were exposed, instead of may have been exposed. KPCC regrets the error.