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Hospital Study Notes Drug-Resistant Germ is More Prevalent

By Mike Stobbe
The San Diego Union-Tribune Associated Press, June 25, 2007

Mike Stobbe of San Diego reports in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 2007, that a dangerous drug-resistant staph germ maybe be infecting as many as 5% of hospital and nursing home patients, according to a comprehensive study.

According to a survey released by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, at least 30,000 U.S. hospital patients may have the super-bug at any given time.

The estimate is about 10 times the rate that some health officials had previously estimated.

"This is a welcome piece of information that emphasizes that this is a huge problem in health care facilities, and more needs to be done to prevent it," said Dr. John Jernigan, and epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stobbe states that at issue is a superbug known as methicillin resistant Staphylococcus auereus, which cannot be tamed by certain common antibiotics. It is associated with sometimes horrific skin infections, but it also causes blood infections, pneumonia and other illnesses.

The potentially fatal germ, which is spread by touch, typically thrives in health care settings where people have open wounds. Bur in recent years, "community-associated" outbreaks have occurred among prisoners, children, and athletes with the germ spreading through skin contact or shared items such as towels.

Past studies have looked at how common the superbug is in specific patient groups, such as emergency-room patients with skin infections in 11 U.S. cities, dialysis patients or those admitted to intensive care units in a sample of a few hundred teaching hospitals.

It's difficult to compare prevalence estimates from the different studies, experts said but the new study suggests the superbug is eight to 11 times more common than some other studies have concluded.

It was different in that it sampled a larger and more diverse set of health care facilities. It also was more recent than other studies, and it counted cases in which the bacterium was merely present in a patient and not necessarily causing disease.

The infection control professionals' association sent surveys to its more than 11,000 members and asked them to pick one day from Oct. 1 to Nov. 10, 2006, to count cases of the infection. They were to turn in the number of all patients in their health care facilities who were identified through test results as infected or colonized with the superbug.

The final results represented 1,237 hospitals and nursing homes - or about 21% of U.S. inpatient health care facilities, association officials said.

The researchers concluded that at least 46 out of every 1,000 patients had the bug.

There was a breakdown: About 34 per 1000 were infected with the superbug, meaning they had skin or blood infections or some other clinical symptom. And 12 per 1000 were "colonized," meaning they had the bug but no illness.

Stobbe says that most of the patients were identified within 48 hours of hospital admission, which means, the researchers believe, that they didn't have time to become infected to the degree that a test would show it. For that reason, the researchers concluded that about 75% of patients walked into the hospitals and nursing homes already carrying the bug.

The infection can be treated with other antibiotics. Health care workers can prevent spread of the bug through hand-washing and equipment contamination, and by wearing gloves and gowns.

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