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CDC Director: Hospital infections down but still deadly, dangerous

America’s hospitals are doing a better job of keeping their patients safe from infection.

New national and state data show a 20 percent decrease in infections from 10 different surgical procedures and a 44 percent decrease in bloodstream infections from the tubes used to give medicines, fluids, nutrients, or blood products over a long period of time.

We’re moving in the right direction, but the sad fact is, many hospitalized patients still end up sick, or dying, from infections they develop during their own health care -- infections we know how to prevent.

Today and every day, more than 200 Americans with health care-associated infections will die during their hospital stay.

Today and every day, more than 200 Americans with health care-associated infections will die during their hospital stay. The most advanced medical care won’t work if clinicians don’t prevent infections through basic things such as regular hand hygiene. Health care workers want the best for their patients. Following standard infection control practices every time will help ensure their patients’ safety.

In addition to the toll on human life, antibiotic-resistant infections in particular add considerable and avoidable costs to the already overburdened U.S. health care system. For example, in most cases, antibiotic-resistant infections require prolonged and costlier treatments, extend hospital stays, and require additional doctor visits and health care use.

Urgent action is needed now.

Avoiding infections reduces the amount of antibiotics that have to be used and reduces the likelihood that resistance will develop. Drug-resistant infections can be prevented by immunization, infection prevention actions in health care setting, safe food preparation and handling, and general handwashing.

Expanding upon current patient safety goals, the FY 2015 President’s Budget requests funding for CDC to increase the detection of antibiotic resistant infections and improve efforts to protect patients from infections. The President’s Budget also requests an increase for the National Health care Safety Network to fully implement tracking of antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance threats in U.S. hospitals.

Patients rely on us to protect them.

Doctors and other health care providers can:

- Follow infection prevention guidelines with every patient, every time.

- Remove medical devices such as catheters and ventilators as soon as no longer needed.

- When transferring a patient, alert the new facility to any infections the patient has.

- Know when and what types of drug-resistance are in their facilities and areas.

- When antibiotics are needed, order recommended cultures and then start treatment promptly, make sure the indication, dose, and duration are in the patient record, and reassess within 48 hours based on test results and patient status.  

- And request immediate alerts when the lab identifies infections – and be sure the drug-resistance pattern is included.

Patients and their loved ones have a role to play as well. Ask everyone including doctors, nurses, other medical staff, and visitors to wash their hands before touching the patient. And, be sure take antibiotics only and exactly as prescribed.

I’d like to share a few of the stories, both tragic and inspiring, that keep us steadfast in our work to make health care safer in every state and in every facility. These stories were shared with me so that I could, in turn, share them with you.

1. Josh Nahum

Josh Nahum was an avid sky diver.  After a sky diving accident, he was admitted to a Colorado hospital and contracted several healthcare-associated infections, including MRSA.  After surviving these infections, Josh was on a hopeful path to recovery until he got a Gram-negative infection that was difficult to treat. Josh died of his infection. He was 27.  

2. Katherine (Kate) Hallisy

When she was five months old, Kate Hallisy of California was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye.  By the time she was 10 years old, she had fought cancer five times.  In one of her battles with cancer, she got a series of healthcare-associated infections and ultimately lost her battle to sepsis, an overwhelming infection that leads to organ failure.  Kate was only 10.

3. Kerry O’Connell (survivor)

In 2004, Kerry O’Connell fell off of a ladder while painting his house and cracked the radial head of his arm, requiring surgery to replace it with a titanium implant. This was the first of eight surgeries. During one he got an antibiotic resistant infection.  Fortunately, Kerry survived his infection, but was astounded by the cultural acceptance of infections as an occasional outcome of surgery.  Today Kerry is a patient advocate in Colorado working for the prevention of infections in health care and improved health care transparency for patients.

4. John McCleary

In 2008, John McCleary was admitted to a hospital in Maine with a minor fracture of his ankle. He was hospitalized for 12 days for rehabilitation and discharged in good condition on October 5. On October 7, he was unable to get up from bed. He was readmitted to the hospital and began his three-month battle with healthcare-associated MRSA.  John lost his battle to MRSA in early 2009. He was 83.

5. Judy Dexter

In 2012, Judy Dexter of Maryland went into the hospital for a lung infection.  She was treated with antibiotics for eight days. Three days after being discharged from the hospital, she had uncontrollable diarrhea which resulted in severe dehydration. Within weeks, she was readmitted to the hospital and diagnosed with Clostridium difficile, a deadly diarrheal infection.  Judy began a six-month struggle against the infection.  In 2013, Judy lost her battle to C. difficile. She was 65.

Tom Frieden, M.D. is the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Follow him on Twitter@DrFriedenCDC. To like the CDC on Facebook, click here

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