No discussion of patient safety would be complete without covering the growth of superbugs: those infectious organisms that make patients sick, may cause death, and can’t be killed with known antiobiotics.
They are known by names such as:
- Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
- Clostridium difficile (C.Diff)
- Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE)
Natural, but Life Threatening
Perhaps surprisingly, most of these organisms are present naturally in our environment without making healthy people sick. About one-third of people are “colonized” with the bacteria staph aureus, meaning it lives on the skin in the noses of people without causing disease. Approximately one percent of people are colonized with the antibiotic resistant form of staph aureus (known as MRSA.) The percentage is higher for people who have been recently hospitalized.
C. Diff lives all around us, too, including in human digestive systems. It won’t cause problems until the person begins to take antibiotics for another illness. At that point the C. Diff can colonize out of control making the infected person much sicker.
Superbugs are invisible, and can survive on surfaces for up to three days. That means that they can be transferred when one infected person simply touches another, or when the patient touches something on which the pathogen resides like a stethoscope, a TV remote, a computer mouse, or shared athletic equipment.
HAIs – Hospital-Acquired (Nosocomial) Infections
An estimated 1.7 million Americans acquire nosocomial infections each year. They are admitted to the hospital injured, debilitated or sick, their immune systems compromised, making them easily susceptible to a colonized infection. Others in the hospital, some sick and others healthy, introduce the pathogen by touching the patient. The superbug takes hold and begins growing out of control. The patient’s stay in the hospital is then extended.
Sometimes the infection can be controlled enough so the patient can eventually leave the hospital. But many patients aren’t so lucky. Annually, at least 99,000 Americans die from hospital acquired infections .
Infectious pathogens find easy access to the bloodstream of a patient with an open wound from injury or surgery. Patients sick from another disease or condition may have a compromised immune system, making them too weak to fight off a superbug. The elderly are especially susceptible because their systems may be fragile due to their age.
Community Acquired Superbug Infections
One of the most prevalent infections, MRSA, has begun to be found in the community, unrelated to hospitals. It is a genetic variant of hospital acquired MRSA, and it has a related name, Community Acquired MRSA, (CA-MRSA).
How Does One Avoid Infection?
In the Hospital
There are two important approaches to avoiding infection with MRSA or any of the other superbugs. Both involve hygiene — the patient’s and others’.
The hospitalized patient or his advocate needs to be diligent about making sure that anyone who touches the patient has washed and sanitized his hands. That includes medical personnel, dinner tray delivery people, visitors, even family members. Just wearing gloves isn’t good enough — they may protect the wearer, but not the patient because the pathogen may be present on the outside of the gloves.
In addition, anything the patient may touch, or that may touch the patient, must be clean. From the telephone, to the TV remote, to the doctor’s stethoscope, dressings, catheters — everything must be sanitized to prevent transfer of the pathogens.
In the Community
The infection-stopping advice is similar for infections that may be transferred outside the hospital, too.
If you know of someone who has a superbug infection, avoid touching that person or anything the person has touched. If someone in your household is infected, make sure you disinfect or sanitize everything from the glasses, dishes and utensils he uses, to his clothing, the telephone, TV remote, even the computer mouse and keyboard.
If you spend time in public places, be very careful about the things you touch, too. In schools, at the gym, in church — wherever you go, it’s possible someone with a superbug was there before you. Use sanitizing wipes on grocery cart handles, or take your own towels to the gym, for example.