It’s hard to know which is worse, the lying or the dying. A bacterial infection called C. diff is the No. 1 hospital-infection killer. It kills as many people as AIDS and more people than dreaded Staph infections.
What about the lying? Well, hospital personnel tell patients and families that antibiotics are to blame. The real culprit is inadequate cleaning in hospitals.
C. diff spreads through the hospital on nurses’ uniforms, wheelchairs, bed rails, call buttons and other surfaces. It’s invisible, and it can survive on these surfaces for months. Patients touch unclean objects near their own bed, picking up C. diff on their hands. Then they pick up food with their contaminated hands, and swallow the germ along with their sandwich or apple.
Once in the G.I. tract, C. diff raises havoc, overpowering other bacteria inside your body and causing severe diarrhea. True, you’re especially vulnerable if you’re on antibiotics, but those medicines don’t cause C. diff. The germ you’ve swallowed is to blame.
How virulent is this germ? A patient who goes into the hospital with one problem and then contracts C. diff is 4.5 times as likely to die as a patient hospitalized with the same diagnosis who doesn’t get C. diff. A shocking 9 percent of patients with C. diff don’t survive their hospital stay.
Most patients pick up C. diff in the hospital, or they swallowed the germ during a nursing home stay before getting to the hospital, or they picked it up in a doctor’s office. In all cases, dirty surfaces are to blame.
There’s an answer to this problem. The Mayo clinic reduced C. diff 79 percent in a pilot project by doing one thing: wiping the frequently touched surfaces around patients’ beds once a day with a bleach wipe. Bleach kills C. diff.
You’d think hospitals everywhere would be scrubbing surfaces to duplicate this success. The manpower used to mop floors could be redirected to cleaning surfaces patients actually touch. Rigorous cleaning is needed, because C. diff is encased in a hard shell, which makes it harder to kill on surfaces than the AIDS virus, for example.
Harder to kill on surfaces, but easier to deal with in every other way. It’s a matter of cleaning, not addressing drug addiction or unsafe sex. Keep the surfaces around a patient’s bed meticulously clean, and C. diff can be nearly eradicated.
The Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths donates printed tray cards for hospitals to remind patients to wash their hands before eating and avoid putting their knife and fork on any surface except a clean plate.
If you’re going to the hospital to visit someone, don’t bring flowers or candy. Instead, bring a canister of bleach wipes and a pair of gloves. You could be saving a life.
What else can you do? If you need to be hospitalized yourself, check to see which hospital in your area has the lowest infection rate. You can find out through Medicare’s Hospital Compare website or your own state’s health department website. Thirty-seven states now require hospitals to report their infection rates and disclose them. You can find out more about these reports at hospitalinfection.org.
The reports show that the risk of getting an infection in some hospitals is ten times higher than in others. Yet often people pick a hospital based on convenience, or a friends’ recommendation, or where their doctor practices.
That can be a big mistake. In many hospitals these days, your own doctor is MIA. About three-quarters of hospitals now use hospitalists. Your own doctor won’t be in charge. All the more reason to choose a hospital carefully.
Your life could depend on it.
Betsy McCaughey, Ph.D., is Chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.
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