Hospital germ horror

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after their deadly fumbling on Ebola and measles, new data show the agency vastly underestimated the threat of a superbug raging through our hospitals and nursing homes.

And New York City is getting clobbered hardest by this bug, Clostridium difficile, according to Lawrence Brandt, professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Data from a leading medical journal show that 29,000 people in the US are killed each year by C. diff, more than double what the CDC claimed three years ago. Worse, the CDC is dithering while patients die.

C. diff causes severe diarrhea, sometimes permanently destroying the lining of the colon and causing other deadly complications. The new data reveal that nearly half a million people get C. diff each year. It kills almost twice as many people as AIDS.

How do patients get it? Oral-fecal contamination, meaning traces of a patient’s C.
diff diarrhea get into another patient’s mouth.

Ugh! That happens because hospitals and other health-care facilities are inadequately cleaned. The germ lurks on bed rails, curtains, faucet handles, door knobs and call buttons where it can survive for two years.

Patients touch these invisibly contaminated surfaces, then touch their mouth or food.

Just being assigned to a hospital room after a C. diff patient is risky. At one hospital, three patients treated consecutively in the same room all contracted C. diff. One died.

C. diff is also spread room to room on doctors’ and nurses’ hands. alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t kill it. Hands have to be cleaned with soap and water, but too few health-care workers do this.

So how did the CDC so miscalculate the size of the C. diff problem in 2012?

It counted C. diff on death certificates.

But certificates often attribute death to whatever diagnosis the patient came in with, not the infection that actually caused death.

The new data, based on laboratory records and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reveal the enormity of the problem. And of the 10 regions sampled, New York has the highest rate, meaning patients here are at highest risk.

Rigorous cleaning is the answer. The Mayo Clinic reduced C. diff by 85 percent in a pilot project by doing one thing: wiping the frequently touched surfaces around patients’ beds once a day with a bleach wipe.

Jewish Hospital-Mercy Medical Center in Cincinatti, Hunterdon Medical Center in New Jersey and other hospitals are duplicating that success. Bleach is used because the C. diff germ is encased in a shell that makes it harder to kill on surfaces than the AIDS virus, for example.

Harder to kill on surfaces, but easier to deal with in every other way. It’s about cleaning, not drug addiction or unsafe sex.

Yet the CDC is not responding with the passion it brought to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The agency says its aim is to reduce C. diff by 50 percent over five years. That’s too little too late.

A survey of 1,100 hospital rooms revealed that cleaning staff overlook half the surfaces.

Some hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the Huntsman Cancer Center in Utah, are successfully deploying robotic cleaners — hydrogen-peroxide room foggers, pulsating UV light machines and other technologies — to reduce bacteria in minutes, offsetting the fallibility of cleaning staff.

Yet the CDC says year after year that a “better understanding” of these machines is needed. That gives hospitals an excuse to do too little.

In the meantime, the needless deaths continue. If you’re visiting someone in the hospital, bring a canister of bleach wipes and a pair of gloves. You could save a life.

Betsy McCaughey is founder and chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.


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