Hospitals appear to be losing the battle against drug-resistant bacteria, according to a new federal report on resistance to an antibiotic that is used when other drugs fail.
In recent years, bacteria have become increasingly resistant to drugs such as penicillin, erythromycin, vancomycin and tetracycline that once were physician's main weapons against infection.
Experts blame the problem on the overuse of antibiotics, which kill off the weakest bacteria and leave the strongest to become more powerful.
Many of these drug-resistant bacteria are now common in hospitals, but health officials don't know how widespread the problem is.
A report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta focused on resistance to vancomycin, which is commonly used as a last resort, in all 95 general hospitals in New Jersey.
The state requires hospitals to report the results of laboratory tests that reveal evidence of resistance to antibiotics.
The number of lab tests finding that the bacteria enterococci resisted vancomycin jumped from 99 in 33 hospitals in 1992 to 278 in 54 hospitals in 1994, the study found.
Because some patients had more than one lab test, the figures don't necessarily equal the number of cases.
By 1994, resistance to vancomycin had spread from 13 to 20 of the 21 counties in New Jersey, according to the CDC.
"It looks like vancomycin-resistant enterococci is an emerging problem in New Jersey.....as national trends indicate generally," said the CDC's Robert Pinner.
"Now we've got bugs that are resistant to it," he said.
Antibiotic-resistant infections among hospital patients began to proliferate in 1990, according to the CDC. The agency monitors reports from 190 hospitals nationwide.
Such efforts to track bacterial resistance are needed to help control and to prevent infections from becoming untreatable, which is the case among some strains of tuberculosis, the CDC said.