(CBS News) — In recent years, antibiotic resistance has risen to dangerous levels and has become a growing public health crisis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans become infected with germs resistant to antibiotics each year and more than 23,000 die from these infections.

Now, a new government study finds more grim news.

Researchers report that nationwide testing uncovered 221 instances of unusual resistance in the so-called “nightmare bacteria” — the dangerous germ carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which can kill if it gets into the bloodstream, urinary tract or lungs.

Infections of this kind are “virtually untreatable with modern medicine,” CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said in a press briefing Tuesday.

CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports that the death rate can be as high as 50 percent.

“For the first time in 2017 there was a nationwide survey and they found that infections from these kinds of bacteria were more common than expected,” LaPook said.

Preventing these bugs from spreading is essential to controlling the antibiotic resistance crisis, the CDC says.

For the study, researchers tested more than 5,700 samples from across the country over the course of nine months. The researchers found 221 cases of unusual resistance in “nightmare bacteria” in 27 states. The CDC defines “unusual resistance” as germs that cannot be killed by all or most antibiotics, are currently uncommon in the U.S., or have specific genes that allow them to spread their resistance to other germs.

Once antibiotic resistance takes hold, it can spread like wildfire, making it extremely difficult to control, the CDC warns. Antibiotic resistance can spread from people with or without symptoms of infection, between hospitals and health care facilities, and even between germs themselves.

In fact, the CDC report showed that one in four germ samples sent for testing had special genes that allow them to spread their resistance to other germs.

In health care facilities where unusual resistance was found, researchers found that in patients without symptoms, about one in 10 screening tests identified a difficult-to-treat germ that spreads easily. That means the germ has the potential to spread undetected in that facility.

The CDC says a joint effort and aggressive approach involving government officials, doctors and health care facilities can help stop resistant bugs before they spread widely. The report offers a containment strategy, which Schuchat said will help “bend the curve or slow the spread of antibiotic resistance.”

The containment strategy calls for:

  • Rapid identification of resistant germs.
  • Use of infection control measures, such as hospital gloves and gowns and special cleaning in the rooms of infected patients.
  • Testing patients without symptoms who may carry and spread the germ.
  • Continued infection control and testing until it is confirmed that spread has stopped.

The report estimates that if implemented correctly, the strategy could prevent 1,600 cases of the superbug CRE in one state over a three-year period.

LaPook describes a sort of “SWAT team” strategy: “If there’s an infection, they bring everybody together — the doctors, the patient, nurses, lab personnel, public health people. And they do things like isolating the patient, making sure people wash their hands properly — so simple, so important. And then something that’s not intuitively obvious, testing contacts of people who seem to be fine. They’re a contact of somebody who’s infected and maybe they themselves are harboring the infection.”

He also warned against overusing antibiotics, which can lead to the growth of drug resistance.

The CDC says individuals can also play a role in controlling the spread of resistant germs, and recommends everyone:

  • Inform your healthcare provider if you recently received health care in another country or facility.
  • Talk to your doctor about preventing infections, taking good care of chronic conditions, and getting recommended vaccines.
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