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The germs that cause infections are getting smarter. But a Moffitt Cancer Center expert says there are teams in place to protect patients. And there are simple things you can do to stay healthy and safe.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health departments across the country found more than 220 instances of germs that had developed "unusual" antibiotic resistance (AR) genes that protect them from almost every antibiotic drug available. Some are able to pass this resistance on to other germs. An infected person may not even know they are sick, passing these "nightmare germs" on to others while suffering no symptoms themselves.

This is of special concern to people with weakened immune defenses, including patients fighting cancer. Moffitt has been well aware of the dangers of multi-drug resistant bacteria, says Dr. Rod Quilitz, supervisor of Moffitt’s Clinical Pharmacy Support Services. "And the danger is not limited to ‘nightmare bacteria’ currently making headlines," he says.

Because these bacteria can be particularly dangerous and difficult to eradicate in immunocompromised cancer patients, Moffitt has two closely interwoven teams dedicated to protecting patients. Moffitt’s Infection Prevention Team focuses on preventing the spread of infections within the health care system. Its Antimicrobial Stewardship Program focuses on working with and educating Moffitt providers on the rational use of antibiotics in order to limit the development of antibiotic resistance. 

More than 23,000 Americans die each year from infections with AR germs. This led the CDC to develop a containment strategy and guidelines for health care settings. The strategy calls for rapid identification of resistance, infection control assessments, testing patients without symptoms who may carry and spread the germ, and continued infection control assessments until the spread is stopped. It requires a coordinated response among health care facilities, labs, health departments and the CDC through its AR Lab Network. Early and aggressive action - when even a single case is found - can keep germs with unusual resistance from spreading in health care facilities and causing hard-to-treat or even untreatable infections.

Dr. Quilitz said one way that patients and their caregivers can help is to understand that antibiotics are not useful to treat suspected cold, flu, or other upper respiratory tract viruses. Unnecessary antibiotic prescribing contributes to the development of "nightmare bacteria." Health care providers should be told if you have recently been treated in another facility or another country. Keep any cuts covered as they heal. And, of course, proper hand washing remains essential in reducing the spread of bacteria and other germs from one patient or person to another.