Hospital MRSA-Control Policies: We May Have It Wrong

MRSA (red) on the microscopic fibres of a wound dressing

Here’s the problem: More than 200,000 patients get infections every year while receiving healthcare in Canada; more than 8,000 of these patients die as a result. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is the most common cause of serious hospital-acquired infections. Its rate increased more than 1,000% from 1995 to 2009. In the United States, MRSA numbers are the same, population adjusted.

Here’s the decades-old solution: Hospitals commonly screen patients for nasal carriage of MRSA. If you test positive, you’re isolated from other patients and treated (if infected) or decolonized (if you’re a MRSA-carrier but not yet sick). In the US, nine states mandate such screening.

Screen and treat seems reasonable enough. However, studies are trickling out suggesting that this is not the way to do it. Instead, they say, decolonize everyone at admission, or at least the “at risk” admissions such as surgery and ICU. This is called universal decolonization.

The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study last summer that found universal decolonization of patients in the ICU was the “most effective strategy” versus screen and treat, or screen and decolonize. Its effectiveness was due to it “significantly reducing” MRSA-positive clinical cultures, and bloodstream infections from any pathogen. The reason, researchers say, is this method gets MRSA as well as other kinds of germs, it gets them right away at admission thus preventing spread to others, and it’s more easily incorporated into regular hospital procedures.

Just today, the British medical journal, The Lancet, published a study (unfortunately, subscription required) saying there’s insufficient evidence to support screening and isolating infected patients. In an interview with the BBC, one of the researchers, Gerd Fatkenheuer, said: “In the haste to do something against the rising tide of MRSA infection, measures were adopted that seemed plausible but were not properly assessed, bundling the effective and harmless with the ineffective and harmful.

With respect to isolating patients he said they found an unintended consequence: “We know for example that isolating patients can result in anxiety and depression and fewer visits by doctors and nurses,” thus lowering the overall standard of care.

And in Canada we have a real-world example of universal decolonization that bears out what the studies are saying. Over a 12 month period, the Vancouver General Hospital universally decolonized all of their 5,000 surgical patients. They found a 39% reduction in the number of surgical site infections, readmissions due to SSIs declined from 4 to 1.25 cases per month, and VGH saved more than $1 million in costs associated with treating patients who develop SSIs.

Catching Up With Florence Nightingale

"Don't tread on me Dude - haven't you read the latest science?"

In 1995 there were 189 cases of MRSA in Canadian hospitals; by 2012, there were 7,206.

In response, The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada (2013), recommends that we re-focus our efforts on prevention strategies; namely, better hand hygiene and improved hospital cleaning.

Obviously the more bugs we kill the safer we’ll be: that’s just common sense — right?

Not so fast, say researchers at the Hospital Microbiome [i.e. bug] Project, whose mandate is to reduce hospital-acquired infections. They say that not only is this approach not fixing the problem, it’s actually making it worse. In other words, that insane rise from 189 MRSA cases a year to over 7,000 – that’s on us.

The thinking is this. Bad bugs don’t exist in isolation. Rather, they exist as a huge minority among hundreds of millions or even trillions of other bugs. Our weapons of destruction – things like antibiotics, bleach, or hand sanitizers – are not laser-guided missiles, they’re like atomic bombs that wipe out almost everything around. Who doesn’t get slaughtered? The bad guys mostly; specifically, the bugs who have already developed resistance to our drugs, etc. – that’s what resistance means, the ability to survive it all.

So once you have a hospital battlefield with a ton of dead harmless and even helpful bugs, guess what happens next? The resistant guys that remain standing reproduce like crazy. That’s because there’s no one left to compete with them for living space and food – as our antibiotics, etc., have killed-off the competition.

Jack Gilbert, PhD, who‘s in charge of the Hospital Microbiome Project puts it this way:

“For the past 150 years, we’ve been literally trying to just kill bacteria. There is now a multitude of evidence to suggest that this kill-all approach isn’t working.” (For example, here and here; and in this popular New York Times essay, “We Are Our Bacteria.”)

Thus, hospital-acquired infections are being driven not by the existence of harmful microbes but by the absence of helpful species.

"Just open the window."

So the idea is to replace search and destroy with “growing a garden.” You do that by manipulating such things as hospital air temperature, humidity, light intensity, room air and CO2 concentrations, ventilation, and so on, thus cultivating an ecosystem of bugs beneficial to the patient. It’s just like tending a garden: by manipulating light, water, and soil conditions you influence the health of the plant; here, you influence the health of the patient by “weeding out” the bad bugs by, especially, growing and nurturing the good ones.

There’s a more traditional way of putting this paradigm shift in thinking:

“In watching disease … the thing which strikes the experienced observer most forcibly is this, that the symptoms or the sufferings generally considered to be inevitable … are very often not symptoms of the disease at all, but of something quite different – of the want of fresh air, or of light, or of warmth, or of quiet, or of cleanliness, or of punctuality and care in the administration of diet, of each or of all of these.” - Florence Nightingale, “Notes on Nursing,” 1860.

It seems we may finally be catching up with her.

MRSA Ends the Career of NFL Player Carl Nicks

Carl Nicks: When he was King

At just 29 years of age, at the height of his physical powers and recognized as the best at his position in the game, MRSA finally did to Tampa Bay Buccaneer all-pro guard Carl Nicks what no opponent could – it ended his career.

On Friday, Mr. Nicks made this announcement: “I’d like to thank the Buccaneers organization for working with me as I have attempted to get myself back on the football field. However, after careful consideration, I have made the decision to step away from the game. This was by no means an easy decision, but I believe that it is what is best for me and my family as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht said: “I know this has been a difficult time for Carl and his family, but we respect his decision and thank him for his effort in trying to get back on the football field.”

It all started so innocently. During training camp last August Carl’s foot blistered and became infected. He took antibiotics that seemed to work but after just 2 games – the last he will ever play – MRSA returned. The infection spread to the nearby bone and that required surgery.

But that never did the trick either. Media reports characterized Carl’s attempted return much like this one: “Though Nicks was never seen during the voluntary portion of the Bucs’ offseason work this year, there were signs that he was hoping to return. He was limited to jogging and rehab drills. He said he was prepared to live with the pain and nerve damage the rest of his life.”

There are tens of thousands of MRSA stories like this just in the US alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MRSA is a “serious threat” to public health because it causes about 80,461 severe infections and 11,285 deaths a year.

We have been following Carl Nick’s story since last November beginning with The Hercules Factor, and this January we posted a blog titled Has MRSA Ruined an NFL Career?

On Friday we got our answer.

The Bank Robbery Rule

Mr. Sutton's approach to getting in and out of this place ...

In his luncheon address at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, this Tuesday, Tom Frieden, MD, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, put this question to the audience:

“What do these 6 organisms have in common besides the fact that they’re all infectious diseases? MERS [a viral-caused respiratory illness that kills about 1/3 of the people who get it], Ebola [viral-caused internal bleeding], measles, multi-drug resistant TB, C. difficile [gut bacteria that causes severe diarrhea], and CRE [the new ‘nightmare bacteria’ that kills half the people who get it].”

The audience was stumped so he offered a clue: “It has to do with how they spread,” he said. Still, no one got it.

The answer is: “They’re all – very importantly – spread in hospitals. We [hospital personnel] can be part of the problem if we’re not careful,” he said.

Tom Frieden was being candid about a subject we’ve addressed many times before, namely, that the hospital is an inherently dangerous place. For example, we’ve reported that: there is sometimes a surprisingly high rate of infection carried by hospital staff; Hospital-Acquired Infections cause more deaths in Canada each year than breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, traffic accidents, and homicides combined; lab coats, stethoscopes, smartphones and tablet computers used by doctors and nurses are magnets for bad bugs; on the high rate of physician non-compliance with hand hygiene protocols; hospitals are built in such that they aid and abet the spread infections, and, finally; the ease with which hospital cleaning procedures can actually spread pathogens instead of getting rid of them, summed up in this superb and highly infectious video, THE BUG ZONE, made by, and featuring, some creative hospital staff in Winnipeg, Canada.

... may help you in your approach to getting in and out of this place.

When legendary bank robber Willie Sutton was captured by FBI agents in 1934 they asked him why he robbed banks. He said, dryly, “Because that’s where the money is.”

As banks are to money, hospitals are to germs, and therefore germs that become, or are already, resistant to antibiotics. Infectious disease specialist Brad Spellberg, MD, explains:

“I do think that people need to understand that the hospital is an inherently dangerous place and it’s not because hospitals are dirty or doctors are lazy or anything like that. Think about it this way. You’re taking the sickest people in society, crowding them into one building, tearing new holes in their bodies that they didn’t use to have by placing plastic catheters in their bloodstream, their bladder, putting tubes into their lungs that can breathe for them, and we’re using very large quantities of antibiotics to treat infections. So that’s a perfect breeding ground to generate antibiotic resistant bacteria.”

There’s a saying among hospital physicians: “The longer you stay the longer you stay.” That is, because hospitals are so full of germs – susceptible and resistant – the longer you stay the greater the risk that they will get hold of you and make you sick, or worse.

So as it turns out, the trick to a successful hospital stay is much the same as the trick to a successful bank robbery – get in and get out as quick as you can.

Hospital Elevator Buttons vs. Toilet Surfaces: Guess Which One the Bacteria Prefer?

Don't touch that!

In hospitals, you’re more likely to find bacteria growing on elevator buttons than on toilet surfaces – for goodness sake!

This is according to a study just published by Canadian researchers who went to 3 major Toronto hospitals and found that 61% of elevator buttons (interior and exterior) vs. 43% of toilet surfaces had bacteria on them. The bugs they found the most were staphylococci and streptococcus bacteria (as in strep throat), in that order. Significantly, the prevalence of bacteria in all hospital elevators exceeded what you find in the community.

While the bacteria found in this study were not antibiotic resistant, the researchers do point out that the white lab coat, computer keyboards, cellphones, stethoscopes, scotch tape, ultrasound transducers, and X-ray equipment have all been identified as sources of hospital-acquired infections in other studies.

These findings illustrate the broader principle that hospitals are an inherently dangerous place. Infectious disease specialist Brad Spellberg, MD, professor of medicine at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in the US (who was not involved in the study) puts it this way:

“I do think that people need to understand that the hospital is an inherently dangerous place and it’s not because hospitals are dirty or doctors are lazy or anything like that. Think about it this way. You’re taking the sickest people in society, crowding them into one building, tearing new holes in their bodies that they didn’t use to have by placing plastic catheters in their bloodstream, their bladder, putting tubes into their lungs that can breathe for them, and we’re using very large quantities of antibiotics to treat infections. So that’s a perfect breeding ground to generate antibiotic resistant bacteria.”

Since hospital elevators lie in high-traffic areas, making elevator buttons potential sources of bacterial transmission by a wide variety of people the researchers suggest several strategies to decrease risk. These include placing hand sanitizers inside and outside elevators, installing touchless sensor buttons, or enlarging some buttons to allow for elbow activation. Education targeted at elevator users about the importance of hand hygiene could also help.

I don’t know about you but I think I might just take the stairs instead.

British Prime Minister David Cameron Warns us of the Growing Crisis of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

While Canada and the United States were celebrating national holidays last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron was hard at work addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance. He announced that Britain would be taking a lead role in trying to solve what he says is a global crisis:

“We are in danger of going back to the dark ages of medicine to see infections that were treatable not be treatable and we would see many thousands of people potentially die from these infections. So it’s a very, very, serious problem and one that we have to grip, and we have to grip it globally because this is a problem that’s going to affect every country in the world.”

In concrete terms we are returning to an era when many women died after childbirth after developing a simple bacterial infection, and where a whole raft of surgical procedures would be imperiled, from hip replacements to cancer chemotherapy and organ transplants.

In an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper Cameron went on to say that, “When we’ve had these problems in the past, whether it is how we tackle HIV and Aids, how it is possible to lead the world and get rid of diseases like polio, Britain has taken a lead and I think it is right we take a lead again.”

Cameron is not going out a limb on this; rather, he is giving political voice and leadership to a growing global crisis identified as such by the world’s leading scientific bodies such as the World Health Organization who announced this year that it’s “…a problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century.”

So, too, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections;” the Public Health Agency of Canada: “More than 200,000 patients get infections every year while receiving healthcare in Canada; more than 8,000 of these patients die as a result;” and the New England Journal of Medicine: “arguably the greatest risk . . . to human health comes in the form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

So Cameron is exactly right to do what he did. Now imagine the traction we could get if Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama would add their voices as well.

A Hospital Outbreak of MRSA Affects People at Home Too

A hospital outbreak of MRSA impacts the whole community. One example is a pregnant women - and her family - who will have to go to the affected hospital to give birth.

A few weeks ago a MRSA outbreak struck the Brantford General Hospital in Ontario. A total of 15 people in 3 wards caught the bug. It was deemed an outbreak because at least 3 new patients in each ward were diagnosed with MRSA in just a single week.

The hospital understandably framed the issues from their perspective: they told us how they responded to the outbreak and about the extra financial costs they incurred.

Which is fair enough, however a closer look reveals that a MRSA outbreak has a greater and more insidious reach than just that. For example, what is the effect on people who are waiting to go that hospital for surgery, say, or for outpatient treatment, or to see their doctor?

Take the case of a pregnant woman about to give birth. Here are the concerns one such woman expressed to an online website for expectant mothers, upon learning of the outbreak at BGH:

“I’m due in 27 days and found out yesterday that there is a large outbreak of MRSA at my local hospital. The outbreak is currently on three different floors that they know of, and I have to pass all three floors to get to the labour and maternity floors. The next closest hospital is the Children’s Hospital 45 minutes away, but if I’m in labour, and my labours are quick, I’m not going to be able to drive myself out there, and my family is an hour away in the opposite direction.

I’ve been leaning towards a homebirth, and this outbreak is pushing me more towards definitely having one, but in the time between now and going into labour, the hospital is where I would have to go for NST’s and monitoring.

How dangerous, exactly, is MRSA to pregnant women and newborns? I really don’t want to risk exposing myself or my newborn to it.”

She received this response from another pregnant woman: “I am supposed to deliver at BGH soon and it’s scaring me as well.”

And from a nurse she received this advice: “I personally would recommend staying away from that particular hospital. If your [sic] uneasy by the hospital now, think how you would be during labor?”

So the women are are being warned away from BGH, they’re scared and they’re not sure where they should give birth.

Meanwhile, news accounts of the outbreak are reporting that some people are more vulnerable than others when it comes to catching MRSA: those who are frequent hospital visitors, are antibiotic users, have open wounds, suffer from poor nutrition or poor hygiene, or are elderly. All told that can be a large swath of the community.

So if women about to give birth are feeling scared and anxious about going to the affected hospital, how many other people in that community might be feeling the same way?

MRSA gets Messy: The Story of NFL Player Lawrence Tynes

Lawrence Tynes in healthier days.

It was only an ingrown toenail – how bad could that be?

It belonged to NFL player Lawrence Tynes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was the summer of 2013 and by then Lawrence had been playing pro ball 12 years. He had 2 Super Bowl Championships under his belt and figured he had five maybe six more seasons left in his 35 year old body – Lawrence was a placekicker. That would about do it and then he, his wife Amanda, and their two 7-year old twin sons would be set. They could see the finish line.

Except the toe got angry. It became red, swollen, and was oozing pus. No problem, team doctors would give him an antibiotic and that would do the trick. But it didn’t. Then a test came back. Lawrence had MRSA. Okay, so they would switch up the antibiotics – a total of 5 more times – but none of them worked out either.

His infection surrounded the bone but so far the bone hadn’t been penetrated. If that were to happen Lawrence would be looking at amputation – and the end of his career. Because as luck would have it this was his kicking foot.

Next came the operations, 3 in all, but that still didn’t get the MRSA out.

In response to the Bucs' claims that Lawrence is "responding well" to treatment, Amanda Tynes, Lawrence's wife, tweeted this picture of her husband along with the following: I hear my husband is responding "well" to treatment. LOL! He's NOT responding at all yet. This is our #bucslife.

So it was back to the antibiotics but this time it would be different. Lawrence would be hooked up to what’s called a PICC line which stands for “peripherally inserted central catheter.” Powerful, potentially toxic antibiotics were dripped into a plastic tube that was inserted into his right arm. The tube was pushed through a succession of veins until it was resting just inches from his heart – all the better to pump the drugs hard throughout his whole body. Lawrence was going to have to live this way for several months which meant that he probably wouldn’t be playing football that season.

So his employer, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made a business decision. While they agreed to pay him his base salary they decided he was not entitled to health or other benefits that his contract provided for, and thus the 2013-2014 season would not count towards his pension. Their reasoning was simple: the MRSA he contracted had nothing do with playing football or with the club’s facilities – in other words, it was not an on-the-job injury.

Except for this: 2 other Buc players and the team trainer had also come down with MRSA; Tynes had been training at the facility every day in the off-season and throughout the summer; and when other NFL players were stricken with MRSA in the past, the teams had always honored their contracts.

So with the backing of the NFL Players Association Lawrence filed a grievance against the Bucs to get them to honor the entirety of his contract.

How is Lawrence doing through all this? “I’m really scared,” he said. “I’m scared for my health, primarily, but when you think about football, I was going to be the Bucs’ kicker until I contracted MRSA. It’s the humanity of it – [the Bucs] not accepting blame and then trying to sugarcoat it with the salary,” he said. “That was their PR cover-up: ‘At least you’re getting paid.’ “That’s not the point. It’s wrong.” I don’t know what else is next.”

What came next was that on March 11, 2014, Lawrence was released from the Bucs.

His grievance is still pending.

And MRSA is messy.

Now That’s Heroic

This is Danielle Ripper today.

It’s not supposed to happen that way. Sixteen year old skateboard-loving boys are not supposed to be lying in the hospital facing death. But that’s what happened to Daniel Ripper of Birmingham, Michigan, after MRSA somehow got into his brain. Daniel didn’t die, but neither did he leave the hospital without paying a price – the MRSA left him blind: “When you get out of the shower and you look at the mirror and it’s all foggy – that’s what I see,” he said, in an interview with his local newspaper. “It’s all lights.”

Today, 2 years after MRSA struck  him, Danielle is not just back skateboarding, he is taking classes and eventually plans to open his own skate park. “I couldn’t play video games or watch TV, so I started skateboarding. It gets me out of the house and clears my mind up. As bad as it is, I know it could be worse, he said. I realize I might not even be here. I can’t see but I can still have fun with life.”

Every year in the United States over 80,000 people suffer from severe MRSA infections just like Daniel does. That’s another reason his story matters. It reminds us that MRSA doesn’t just come and go like the illnesses most of us experience. Instead, it leaves its mark: an amputated limb, a removed organ, a disfigured face. And it makes you pay a heavy psychological price too, because the people who’ve had it once are more likely than those who’ve never had it to get it again. So you have to learn to live not just with your blindness, as in Daniel’s case, but also with the dread that it may return. And when you’re a MRSA patient in the United States, you also know that it will kill over 23,000 Americans every year.

But this coming Saturday, on June 14, Daniel Ripper and those close to him will have something else on their minds. A fundraiser for Daniel is being held at the Birmingham skate park to raise awareness about MRSA and to help out Daniel financially. There will be food, a raffle, art, and music.

And there will be plenty of skateboarding.

If you would like to see videos of Daniel or contribute to his fundraiser, click on the first link above.

The Coffee Cure: Drinking Coffee Cuts Nasal MRSA Rates in Half

Why does hot coffee or tea reduce MRSA colonization? Perhaps because they decrease iron absorption and iron is needed for growth of S aureus. We also know that compounds in those drinks have antimicrobial properties.

I don’t know about you but it seems every time I want coffee from a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons that’s located inside a hospital, I have to queue up at the end of a long line of health care workers. Well, here’s some research that suggests we just might want to be a little more tolerant of those long lines.

It says that people who drink hot coffee or tea are 50% less likely to have MRSA in their nose, compared with people who did not drink hot coffee or tea. And the more coffee or tea you drink, the lower your risk for MRSA.  Soft drinks and iced tea had no significant effect on nasal MRSA risk.

This is according to a study published in the journal Annals of Family Medicine by researchers at the University of South Carolina, Charleston.

The researchers describe this effect as “robust” and if you dig into the study a little bit you can see why.

To begin with, the paper points out that their finding is not entirely new. Rather, it’s consistent with a line of research that has shown coffee and tea to have had antimicrobial activity against other types of pathogenic bacteria. For example, against E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus – i.e., staph that are susceptible to antibiotics.

Second, the researchers discuss a study where bedridden patients underwent treatment for their MRSA-infected pressure ulcers. One group of patients had their ulcers treated (flushed) using green tea while the other group had their ulcers treated with a saline solution. After one month, the patients whose ulcers were treated with green tea experienced a marked decrease in ulcer severity, and the MRSA had disappeared in half of these patients – the exact same finding we have with the nasal MRSA. In the patients treated with salt and water, ulcer severity was unchanged, and all of the ulcers were still infected with MRSA.

All told, this is strong evidence and so the question is, how does it work?

The researchers aren’t sure. They think what’s happening is that certain compounds in coffee and tea have antimicrobial properties which destabilize and weaken the MRSA. And the reason the liquids can’t be cold is so these antimicrobial compounds can be breathed in via the vapors from piping hot cups of coffee or tea.

So back to those long coffee lines at the hospital. In an interview with WebMD, one of the authors of the study, Dr. Eric Matheson, an assistant professor of family medicine at USC, Charleston, offered us some free medical advice: “If you don’t drink coffee or tea and work in a health care setting, you may want to start as this may decrease your risk of carrying MRSA in the nose,” he says. “It couldn’t hurt.”

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