Victorian hospitals are on high alert for a type of bacteria producing a condition with the complex title klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase (KPC), which is thought responsible for the death of two patients at St Vincent’s Hospital last year.

KPC has infected dozens of people in Victoria over the past three years. According to Kumar Visvanathan, an infectious disease specialist at St Vincent’s, 28 cases of the infection have been diagnosed at the hospital since 2012.

A spokesman for the Department of Health also said that while 18 of the 57 people had died with the bacteria detected in their system, it was unclear if the bug was actually responsible for their deaths.

The non-responsiveness of the superbug to modern antibiotics has reportedly forced doctors to use drugs from the 1940s, which carry more side effects.
This approach prompts fears that the bacteria will stop responding to the old drugs at some stage, leaving KPC-infected patients unprotected.

The first diagnosed cases of KPC in Victoria involved patients who are thought to have been infected after receiving medical care overseas, where the superbug had become more prevalent over the last few years, particularly in Greece, Italy, India and South-East Asia.

However, an outbreak among patients this year has forced health authorities to proceed with a statewide review of the problem and order hospitals to use maximum infection control procedures.

KPC can be present in the bowels without causing disease, a state described as ‘colonisation’. In some cases, people can by ‘populated’ by the bacteria for up to four years without suffering illness. They can also develop urinary and blood infections, and depending on the individual’s immune system and its responsiveness to antibiotics, it can be fatal.

Common signs and symptoms include fever, rapid pulse rate, redness, swelling, and pain or heat at a specific site on the body. The bacteria is not spread through the air or by coughing or sneezing.

There is currently no vaccination available for preventing KPC. Victoria’s Health Minister Jill Hennessy has excluded the possibility of an extended public health risk posed by the bacteria.

“All health service CEOs and chief medical officers have instituted a response to make sure we are better able to identify, contain and address any issues relating to KPC,” said Minister Hennessy, adding that she did not want Victorians to feel frightened about using their public health services.

“We are simply taking additional steps to make sure that we manage this issue properly to make sure our health services are safe.”