A deadly bacterium known as Klebsiella pneumoniae is believed to have killed some 120-200 patients in hospitals across the country.

"Between 400 to 500 people have been infected by the bug, and 30 to 40 percent of them have already died. However, it is important to note that most of them were in a serious condition, and some were suffering from prior medical conditions," said Prof. Yehuda Carmeli, the head of the epidemiology unit at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv.

According to Carmeli, most of those infected have been hospitalized for over 25 days, and their average age stood at 74-75.

The virulent stain of bacteria is resistant to all kinds of antibiotics, and has already spread in many hospitals across Israel.

Health Minister Yacov Ben Yizri on Wednesday rejected accusations that his ministry had underestimated the scope of the outbreak, saying the case was kept a secret to prevent mass panic.

"It is true that the bug infects people who have been hospitalized with severe illnesses and this should not scare the public," he said.

Infection expert Dr. Galia Rahav of the Sheba Medical Center told Channel 1 Tuesday that 130 people have been infected in Sheba Medical
Center alone, and about a third of them have already died.

Health Ministry sets up committee

The Health Ministry has set up a committee of experts, headed by Prof. Carmeli, to determine the scope of the problem and advise hospitals on how to contain it. The director-generals of all hospitals in Israel have been summoned to a meeting with Health Ministry officials to coordinate efforts aimed at containing the outbreak.

The Klebsiella pneumoniae bacterium is commonly found in neonatal intensive care units and ICUs. "The bacterium mainly infects patients who have been treated with antibiotics, patients on life support, and patients who have undergone angioplasty," explained Prof. Shai Ashkenazi, the head of the children's ward and an infection expert at the Schneider Children's Medical Center.

"The bacteria affect high risk patients or patient suffering from a condition that weakens their immune system," he added.

According to Ashkenazi, Klebsiella pneumoniae is one of the strongest antibiotic-resistant bacterium in existence.