With Dangerous Superbugs on the Rise, Cleaning Hospitals Means Life or Death

With Dangerous Superbugs on the Rise, Cleaning Hospitals Means Life or Death

Hospital rooms, operating rooms and medical equipment are so poorly cleaned that any patient entering a hospital is at risk of contracting a deadly superbug. That’s true even if you’re going for the happiest reason of all, to give birth.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows alarming increases in the most dangerous superbugs: Acinetobacter up 78%, Candida auris up 60% and the notorious MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) up 13 % year over year.

When you are a patient, the room or bed you are placed in largely determines your risk of infection. If the previous occupant had an infection, your risk of being infected with the same organism increases by 583%, or nearly six times, according to research from the Columbia School of Nursing.

The cleaning is so sloppy that germs from the previous patient are still lurking.

Unlike the COVID virus, which spreads primarily through the air, the bacterial and fungal organisms that terrorize hospitals are spread by touch and can linger for weeks and months on surfaces. Masks are useless against most superbugs.

In Washington, DC, politicians and pharmaceutical companies are pushing for legislation, such as the Pasteur Act, that will incentivize companies to invest in new weapons against superbugs. “We’re playing with fire if we don’t pass” soon, said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), one of the bill’s sponsors.

Sorry, but that’s a long term strategy. Patients who need hospitalization today, or this year, cannot wait for drugs that are not even in the pipeline yet.

Hospitals need to focus on the strategy that will produce immediate results: rigorous cleaning and disinfection. Yet this is missing from the conversation.

cleaners cleaning
The Pasteur law in Washington, DC will incentivize companies to invest in new weapons against superbugs.
Shutterstock / Roman Chazov

Hospital mattresses are so contaminated with bodily fluids that placing a patient in a bed occupied up to 90 days earlier by someone with C. diff (Clostridium difficile, the most common hospital infection) puts the new patient at risk, found Dr. Lucy Witt of Emory University.

Even fragile newborns are in danger. According to researchers from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 20% of surfaces in the neonatal intensive care unit of a Chattanooga children’s hospital were contaminated with drug-resistant MRSA.

Unclean medical equipment is another culprit. Researchers have traced an outbreak of infection in a burn unit at a hospital in Galveston, Texas, to a contaminated EKG lead. The last patient treated with this thread had been discharged 38 days earlier, but the superbug had remained alive.

These are not anecdotes. Hospitals are a germinal mess everywhere. A survey of 23 academic medical centers from Washington, DC, north to Boston by epidemiologists Michael Parry and Philip Carlin found that hospital cleaners neglected more than half of the surfaces supposed to be cleaned. (Tip: If you have to eat lunch in a hospital room, the safest place to put your sandwich is on the toilet seat, which is almost never overlooked.)

Surfaces in the neonatal intensive care unit at a children’s hospital in Chattanooga have been contaminated with drug-resistant MRSA.
Shutterstock / hxdbzxy

The good news is that cleaning reduces infection rates. Researchers at Rush Medical College in Chicago cut the spread of a superbug by two-thirds by instructing cleaners on which surfaces they were jumping on and the importance of soaking surfaces and waiting, rather than doing a quick wipe by spraying.

Parry reports that at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, improved cleaning contributed to “dramatic reductions” in infections, including a 75% drop in C. diff.\

Robert Orenstein of the Mayo Clinic reduced C. diff by 85% in a pilot program by wiping surfaces around patient beds with a bleach wipe once a day. Why don’t all hospitals do this?

The stakes are too high to settle for the dirty status quo. A hospitalized patient who contracts a superbug is at a much higher risk of death than another patient with the same medical condition who is not infected.

Two Johns Hopkins doctors, Cynthia Sears and Fyza Yusuf Shaikh, warn that despite the “enormous progress” expected against cancer in the coming years, “without an equally vigorous effort to fend off superbugs”, many cancer patients will continue to lose their lives.

Fighting off superbugs starts with cleaning up hospitals. Meanwhile, when visiting loved ones in the hospital, bring bleach wipes and clean surfaces near their beds. You could save their lives.

Betsy McCaughey is chair of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.

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