The deadly plague American hospitals refuse to face
Consumer Reports is sounding the alarm about a vicious infection raging through hospitals, even prestigious ones such as Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short, sickens half a million people each year, and 29,000 of them die within a month.
New Yorkers face an especially high risk.
Worse, while the deaths mount, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps bungling the response.
Sounds like the Veterans Administration — another dysfunctional government agency with blood on its hands. No heads are rolling there, and likewise, no one is being held accountable at the CDC.
That needs to change.
The CDC botched Ebola, bungled measles and is already playing catch-up on Zika. But its failure to stop C. diff is worse.
While the CDC repeatedly promises to reduce C. diff, touting one goal after another, it never succeeds. Infections are up 4 percent, according to the agency’s most recent data. Bad news for patients.
Contracting C. diff drastically reduces your chance of leaving the hospital alive. If two patients come into the hospital with the same diagnosis, the one who gets C. diff is four times more likely to die.
C. diff causes severe diarrhea, and the invisible particles spread everywhere — that’s how other patients get it. The route is oral-fecal contamination, meaning traces of a patient’s diarrhea wind up in another patient’s mouth. Not a pretty picture.
How could that happen? Inadequate hospital cleaning.
The C. diff germ lurks unseen on bed rails, tables, call buttons — everywhere. Patients touch these surfaces and pick up the germ on their fingers. Then they touch their mouth or food and swallow it.
If you’re assigned to a hospital room where a patient before you had C. diff, your risk skyrockets because cleaning staff typically overlook about half the surfaces in a room. The germ can live for weeks. Yikes.
But the battle against C. diff is far from a lost cause. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reduced it by 85 percent in a pilot project by cleaning surfaces around patients’ beds daily with a bleach wipe. Why isn’t every hospital doing that? The CDC is largely to blame. Its lax guidelines give hospitals an easy out.
True, money for cleaning staff is in short supply, but hospitals can redeploy their staff from duties such as ritual floor mopping to cleaning the surfaces doctors and patients touch with their hands.
The CDC should be leading the way, but instead it’s busy moving goalposts. In 2009, the agency set a goal of reducing C. diff by 30 percent by 2013 — a meager target given what scientists are proving can be achieved.
Even so, the CDC failed. Now the agency’s toying with a new goal: reducing C. diff 30 percent by 2020. But there are no signs the CDC is doing what it takes to meet that goal either.
In contrast, Britain’s cash-strapped National Health Service actually cut C. diff infections by more than 50 percent over three years.
In the United States, institutions like Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the Mayo Clinic are ramping up their efforts by using robotic cleaners — hydrogen peroxide room foggers, pulsating ultraviolet machines and even a continuous 24/7 technology built into air conditioning ducts — to sanitize hospital rooms.
Hospital administrators might think they can’t afford to do that. The truth is, they can’t afford not to. C. diff adds a staggering 40 percent to the cost of treating a patient.
Where’s the CDC on these high-tech cleaning methods? Dawdling, saying it needs “a better understanding” of these machines. Meanwhile, people are dying.
Denise Cardo has overseen the agency’s infection-control programs since 2003, watching while C. diff overwhelmed hospitals and killed loved ones. The Consumer Reports exposé is the latest reminder of this ongoing failure. It’s time for Cardo to go and to take her longtime deputy Michael Bell with her.
Betsy McCaughey is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths: hospitalinfection.org.