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Is silence in the face of a deadly threat negligence?

Through the fall of last year, Ebola was the bug of the day. Thousands in West Africa died as a result of the virus. And when the first death on U.S. soil, it seemed as if all the news stops were pulled out.

In recent weeks, another bug unseated Ebola as the big concern, as we noted in a post last month. This time, the culprit is Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae — CRE.

Carbapenem is a class of antibiotic that is commonly understood to be the last line of defense against infections. CRE started making headlines when officials confirmed that two patient Los Angeles died from it. The patients had become infected by contaminated duodenoscopes — special devices used to examine the inside of the digestive tract.

The news of those deaths sparked a warning from the Food and Drug Administration. It alerted hospitals and clinics across the country that the types of scopes involved require special sterilization steps to make sure they are safe before reuse.

All this alarm might lead some to conclude that CRE is something new. But as the Palm Beach Post reported earlier this month, that is not the case. Not only has CRE been around a while, seven years ago it was responsible for the deaths of 22 people in Florida.

Authorities knew about it but didn’t say anything at the time. And apparently, many of the 70 patients who were affected by the outbreak were never informed by their doctors that they had become infected.

The thing is the mortality rate for CRE is about 50 percent. Unless it is successfully checked, it kills about half the patients who get it.

Some might say failing to inform patients when they’ve been exposed to CRE amounts to a clear case of negligence that amounts to medical malpractice. But state health officials observe that there is no regulation requiring such communication.

Depending on the circumstances, it would seem that one could argue that failing to inform amounts to negligence. But that is something that needs to be determined case by case in consultation with experienced legal counsel.