Photo credit: CDC

When superbug infections spread across hospitals, it can have very damaging effects,and scientists and public health officials are often left puzzled at how these pathogens spread. 

A new paper, however published in Science Translational Medicine details how the answer could all be down to genetics. The paper looks a how the antibiotic-resistant Klebsiella bacteria spread through 26 healthcare facilities and sickened 40 people back in 2008. 

In an attempt to track the spread, they relied on a combination of genomic sequencing and information about patient movement. 

Microbiologist and lead study author, Evan Snitkin from the University of Michigan, explained, “My research group and many others in recent years have been using these technologies to study how bacteria moves through one institution. But these organisms permeate healthcare institutions across regions. We wanted to see if you could also track them as they spread across facilities.”

Usually, outbreak investigators rely on information about patient movement, but it would seem that data isn’t detailed enough to provide solid evidence of how an outbreak starts and spreads. By using sequencing, the team were able to trace the origins of the 2008 outbreak to a single strain introduced into the Chicago area in late 2007. 

It was from there that they were able to paint a picture of how events at one particular hospital contributed to the spread of the infection. The conclusion was that one nursing home was a vital transmission hub, with patients from that facility spreading the infection far and wide. 

Snitkin added, “This was proof of principle. It could really transform how we do infection control across regions. We could use it to really get a better handle on outbreaks.”

The use of real-time tracking would allow a hospital to crack down on hand washing to stop the spread of an outbreak from within, or whether patients going in and out of the hospital needs to be better monitored. 

He said, “You can start to connect the dots. In this case, the centre of transmission was a single facility and we expect that won’t be uncommon.”

The next question to ask is whether the same technique can be used once a superbug has become endemic to an area, as Klebsiella is now in the Chicago region. 

“The big question,” he commented, “is what will be the lessons we can use to get a hold on antibiotic-resistance which has become a major public threat?”