Germ Warfare

The most combat deaths that the United States ever suffered — by far — was during World War ll. Almost 292,000 troops died from the time the US entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to war’s end in 1945. Averaged over the 4 years that’s almost 73,000 American deaths a year.

Now take a look at the number of deaths that occur each year in US hospitals due to infections that patients acquire while there: 75,000. Add to that 573,000 people who will develop hospital infections and will not die, but who will undergo surgeries, lengthy and repeated hospital admissions, limb germ warfareamputations, physical and psychological suffering, and so on.

Simply put, “Hospitals need to stop infecting their patients,” says Doris Peter, PhD, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. “Until they do, patients need to be on high alert whenever they enter a hospital even as visitors.” What’s more, “We’ve reached the point where patients are dying of infections in hospitals that we have no antibiotics to treat,” says Arjun Srinivasan, MD, who oversees the CDC’s efforts to prevent hospital-acquired infections.

But what does “high alert” mean? Are there actually concrete things that patients and their families can do to make a hospital stay safer?

The answer is an unqualified Yes: According to this month’s excellent cover story in Consumer Reports, America’s Antibiotic Crisis – How hospitals can make you sick, there are 10 things patients have to take the initiative on:

Consider MRSA testing. A nasal swab can detect MRSA and allow medical staff to take precautions, such as having you wash with a special soap before your procedure.

Insist on cleanliness. Ask to have your room cleaned if it looks dirty.

Take bleach wipes for bed rails, doorknobs, and the TV remote. Insist that everyone who enters your room wash their hands.

Keep your own hands clean. Wash regularly with soap and water.

Question antibiotics. Make sure that any anti­biotics prescribed to you in the hospital are needed and appropriate for your infection.

Watch out for heartburn drugs. Medications such as Nexium and Prilosec increase the risk of developing C. difficile symptoms by reducing stomach acid that appears to help keep the bug in check. So ask whether the drug is needed and request the lowest dose for the shortest possible time.

Ask every day whether ‘tubes’ can be removed. The risk of infection increases the longer items such as catheters and ventilators are left in place. If you’re not able to ask, be sure a friend or family member does.

Say no to razors. If you need to be shaved, use an electric hair remover, not a razor, because any nick can provide an opening for infection.

And when you return home from the hospital:

Watch for warning signs. They include fever, diarrhea, worsening pain, or an incision site that becomes warm, red, and swollen. People at particular risk include adults older than 65 as well as infants, anyone on antibiotics, and people with a compromised immune system.

Practice good hygiene.  Take extra precautions to make sure that your infection doesn’t spread. So clean frequently touched surfaces with 1 part bleach mixed with 10 parts water. Reserve a bathroom for the infected person. If that’s not possible, use the bleach solution to disinfect surfaces between uses. And don’t share toiletries or towels; use paper towels rather than cloth hand towels.

This 5 minute video dives deeper into the above points:

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