"Superbugs are nightmare bacteria that present a triple threat," said Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "They're resistant to nearly all antibiotics. They have high mortality rates, killing half of people with serious infections. And they can spread their resistance to other bacteria."

So far, one particular superbug, called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), has been found only in hospitals or nursing homes, rather than in the community. But officials are concerned that if the bacteria isn't contained soon, even common infections could become untreatable.

According to USAToday reports, in 2001, only 1.2 percent of the common family of bacteria, Enterobacteriaceae, were resistant to carbapenem antibiotics — the strongest class available. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 4.2 percent. In the first half of 2012, nearly 200 hospitals treated at least one of these infections. About 4 percent of hospitals have had at least one patient with CRE, along with 18 percent of long-term, acute-care hospitals, the CDC said.

Those numbers could underestimate the scope of the problem, however. There are no reliable national data on CRE infections. There is no national requirement that hospitals and other health care facilities report CRE cases. CDC officials noted that only six states require hospitals and other healthcare facilities to report CRE infections.

In November, USA TODAY reported that CRE infections already are endemic in several U.S. population centers, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, which account for hundreds of confirmed cases. Smaller pockets of cases have been reported across much of the country, including Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina.

Perhaps the greatest threat from CRE is its ability to share its resistance genes with other bacteria. So although CRE's spread is somewhat limited today, it could potentially share its resistance with far more common bacteria, such as E. coli, Frieden said. If that happened, common conditions affecting millions of Americans, which are now treated with antibiotics — such as diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory conditions and pneumonia — could become untreatable.

To address this growing concern, Frieden outlined a six-step plan for hospitals, called "Detect and protect."

First, hospitals need to find out which, if any, of their patients have CRE, including patients transferred from other facilities. They should take precautions, such as wearing gloves and gowns, to prevent spreading the superbug, even dedicating separate rooms, machines and staff for those infected, Frieden said.

Hospital staff should remove invasive devices, such as catheters, as soon as possible. These devices can spread the superbug deep into the body, Frieden said. Lastly, doctors need to prescribe antibiotics more judiciously. About half of antibiotic prescriptions are either unnecessary or inappropriate, he said. Patients also should think twice about asking for antibiotics, because many common illnesses, such as ear infections and sinus infections, often go away without them.

Patients and visitors should also remind everyone who enters the hospital room to wash their hands, Frieden said.

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