Medical Minute: Some facts on superbugs

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By The Staff

Patients often approach their physicians with questions spurred by something they’ve seen on TV or read in a newspaper.

Recently, a member of LAMC’s medical staff received this question from a patient: “What is LAMC doing about ‘superbugs’?”

 What are superbugs?

Even in a state of health, the body houses many germs. Germs such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites can enter the body through tubes, needles, open skin, eyes, nose and mouth.  

When an individual is unable to fight the germ, it grows and multiplies causing an infection. People at high risk for infections include the elderly, surgery patients, young children, transplant and cancer patients and people in hospitals, nursing homes and institutions.

Superbugs, are those germs that can cause serious, sometimes even fatal, infections. They are smart bugs that have learned to resist certain antibiotics and conventional treatments. Widespread use and often misuse of antibiotics have contributed to their proliferation.

Two of the most common are Clostridium difficile (C. diff) and methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureus (MRSA).

C. diff affects the intestinal system, manifesting as severe diarrhea. It often follows antibiotic therapy when the normal intestinal flora becomes out of balance.  

It can be transmitted from person to person by contact with contaminated skin (touch) or surfaces in the environment surrounding that person.

MRSA is a common germ (staphylococcus aureus) that has developed a resistance to methicillin and other commonly used antibiotics. It is found in healthcare institutions and in the community as well.  

It likes warm, moist environments like the skin and nose. Symptoms include a skin infection that may look like a pimple or boil which is red, painful and may be swollen.  

MRSA, like C. diff is spread by direct contact with either the infected person or environmental surfaces that they have touched. Crowded conditions and poor personal hygiene enhance opportunities for transmission.

 What can be done?

At LAMC we take many steps to prevent and control these types of infections. The single most important prevention technique in the hospital, in public and at home, is good hand washing.

We encourage our LAMC patients to challenge our providers and staff if they do not observe them washing their hands, either with soap and warm water or alcohol sanitizing gel, before and after delivering care.

We provide patients with “Prevention of Infection” educational information, which includes instructions for hand-washing techniques.

We also screen patients at high risk for MRSA and isolate any found to have the infection either upon admission or as diagnosed. We continuously educate staff to signs, symptoms and treatment of these conditions.

If your doctor thinks you have contracted this type of infection, he or she will order tests that may include obtaining samples of your blood or body fluids to be sent to the lab for analysis. Your physician will communicate the results of these tests to you, and if you are an LAMC in-patient, to those who are caring for you.

Tracking incidence of infections is a routine part of our quality processes, and MRSA and C. diff are monitored in both out-patients and in-patients.

Finally, we report all cases of MRSA, C. diff, and other infectious diseases to the New Mexico Department of Health so that we can cooperate with the rest of the state in preventing wide-spread outbreaks.

We are pleased to report that LAMC is well below the national average for Hospital Acquired Infections, defined as those contracted after coming to the facility.

Our statistics include the following: The national average for hospital acquired infections is 6/1000 patient days. LAMC’s rates: 2007: 3.62/1000 patient days; 2008: 3.55/1000 patient days; 2009 (Jan and Feb); 3.00/1000 patient days. We appreciate our employees’ dedication to keeping these rates so low, as evidenced by the declining rate.

Those wishing more information on ‘Superbugs’ should consult their physicians. Any questions about LAMC’s processes may be directed to the Infection Preventionist at 661-9390.

Anne Cruse, RN, is the Infection Control Coordinator at Los Alamos Medical Center.