Health service faces ‘race against time’ to deal with superbug

Head of HSE task force calls for speedier response in tackling CPE bug

The head of the HSE’s task force combatting superbugs has the health service is facing a race against time to deal with the the potentially fatal and antibiotic-resistant superbug CPE/CRE.

"This is a race against time. Once it becomes established, we can't go back," said Prof Martin Cormican, speaking on Friday morning.

The bug carbapenemase-producing enterobacteriaceae (CPE), also referred to as carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE), is the newest in a long line of “superbugs” or bacteria that are hard to kill with antibiotics. They are a particular problem in hospital settings.

The bug has developed the ability to become resistant to last-resort powerful antimicrobials known as carbapenems, which makes them more challenging to treat if they go on to cause infection.


In October, the Government announced an emergency public health response to deal with the superbug.

It is not just the HSE that needs to act to combat the spread of the bug, said Prof Cormican.

"This involves the entire health service. The private sector too," he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.

Prof Cormican, who is director of the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory, warned it will cost hundreds of millions of euro in the next few years to cope with CPE.

‘More at risk’

“Every month we spend deciding how to deal with it, puts us more at risk,” he said.

CPE is the worst superbug ever seen, according to Prof Cormican. Most who have it do not know they have it and it will not be a problem for them.

However, it is a serious risk for vulnerable people. The infection is “mainly hospital spread” and there is an urgent need to change how hospitals are operated in a bid to stop the spread of infection, he said.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said on October 25th he had convened the National Public Health Emergency Team as a public health response to the bug, which had cost Limerick University Hospital €4 million to tackle over a two-year period.

In Tallaght hospital, it had resulted in the cancellation of some 700 surgeries over two years and had cost an estimated €2 million.

Human infections with CPE are associated with poorer patient outcomes and mortality rates exceeding 40-50 per cent, and higher hospital costs. Mr Harris said it was estimated that antimicrobial-resistant infection was responsible for about 25,000 deaths a year in the EU.

Prof Cormican welcomed the move by the Minister for Health to declare the super bug a public health emergency.

Prof Cormican said he will be a “thorn in the side” for the health service and called for a speedier response to the crisis.