The "Phantom Menace" Superbug Is On Its Way, So Here's Everything You Need To Know

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report warning that a dangerous, antibiotic-resistant superbug is on the rise in the United States. Scientists have dubbed the superbug the “phantom menace,” citing the difficulty of detecting and treating it. Friends, this bug is a lot scarier than Darth Maul. Although most Americans don’t need to panic just yet, health officials are paying close attention to this bug and its larger family of bacteria, which they regard as “among the country's most urgent public health threats,” according to The Washington Post.

The phantom menace bug is from a family of bacteria known as “carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriacae” or CRE. CRE are resistant to certain types of antibiotics, and are thus very difficult to treat and very dangerous — up to half of patients infected with CRE die, according to the CDC.

The particular strain of CRE that the CDC discusses in its report is especially dangerous because of the way it resists antibiotics. Some bacteria’s genomes evolve so that they are able to break down antibiotics. The “phantom menace” does something more insidious: It deactivates the medication with an enzyme, and that enzyme is carried by genetic material called a “plasmid.” As Dr. William Schaffner, a specialist in infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Live Science, a plasmid “can actually move from one bacteria to another” — meaning that the plasmid can transfer its antibiotic resistance to other bacteria, including the normal bacteria in our bodies.

As dangerous as this and other CRE bacteria are, the general public doesn’t need to freak out yet. Between June 2010 and August of this year, the "phantom menace" superbug has been detected in 43 cases in 19 states across the US. The average age among patients for whom age was reported was 70 years. Travel to other countries seemed to play a role as well: 66 percent had traveled internationally during the previous year, and 55 percent had been hospitalized internationally. India was the most frequent site of international travel and hospitalization.

Although this superbug is still relatively rare, infectious disease specialists and health officials are monitoring CRE bacteria in the US and abroad. Of the “phantom menace” strain, CDC Director Thomas Frieden told The Washington Post, “This is a tricky drug-resistant bacteria, and it isn't easily found. What we're seeing is an assault by the microbes on the last bastion of antibiotics."

Whether we’re fighting terrifying superbugs or the common cold, there are simple, practical steps we can take to stop the spread of germs and infection. The CDC recommends that we wash hands thoroughly and often; try to avoid touching our noses, eyes, and mouths; stay home when we’re sick; and cover our mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing.

Image: Pixabay; Giphy (1, 2)