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Lethal Lies About Hospital Infections

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It's hard to know which is worse, the dying or the lying.

A bacterial infection called C. diff is the No. 1 hospital-infection killer, according to information released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 26. It kills more people than dreaded staph infections and about as many as AIDS.

What about the lying? Well, hospital personnel often tell patients and families that antibiotics are to blame. The CDC repeats that same lethal lie. Sorry, but the real culprit is inadequate cleaning in hospitals.

C. diff spreads through the hospital on nurses' uniforms, wheelchairs, bedsheets, call buttons and other surfaces, where it can survive for months.

Patients touch these surfaces, then pick up food without washing their hands first, and swallow the germ along with their food. Once in the gastrointestinal tract, C. diff can cause severe diarrhea, which can sometimes result in deadly complications.

How virulent is this germ? According to the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality, a patient who goes into the hospital for one problem and then contracts C. diff is 4.5 times as likely to die as a patient admitted with the same diagnosis but avoids contracting C. diff. A shocking 9 percent of patients with C. diff don't survive their stays.

Yes, patients on heavy doses of antibiotics are especially vulnerable, because antibiotics kill other bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract that would keep C. diff under control. But antibiotics don't cause C. diff.

Contaminated surfaces are to blame. Most C. diff victims pick up the germ in the hospital; most of the rest, in a nursing home, doctor's office or during a previous hospital stay.

There's an answer. The Mayo Clinic reduced C. diff by 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.

You'd think hospitals everywhere would be scrubbing surfaces to duplicate this success. Outrageously, most are not.

The manpower used to mop floors could be redirected toward cleaning surfaces doctors and patients touch.

Rigorous cleaning is essential, with bleach or another effective germ-killer, because the C. diff germ is encased in a hard shell, making 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 the patient's bed meticulously clean, and C. diff can be nearly eradicated. We have the knowledge; what's lacking is the will.

Although C. diff claims about the same number of American lives as AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control and hospitals are not responding with the passion that tamed the AIDS threat. The CDC says its aim is to reduce C. diff by 33 percent over five years — a pathetically timid goal. It reduced it by a puny 2 percent from 2011 to 2012.

The CDC stresses reducing the use of antibiotics in hospitals. Fine for a long-term approach. That's like responding to Hurricane Sandy by discussing worldwide weather patterns. What is also needed is immediate, proven barriers to stop the dying. In the case of C. diff, that means better hospital cleaning and other steps to keep C. diff from entering patients' mouths.

The CDC's March 26 press release tells patients to ask their doctors whether they are on the correct antibiotics. What they should be advised is to ask for a clean hospital room and for help cleaning their own hands, especially before meals.

The Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths donates printed tray cards to hospitals to remind patients to wash their hands before eating and avoid putting their utensils anywhere except their plates. Shamefully, some hospital personnel say they don't want to tell patients about germs around the bed and the need to take precautions.

If you're going to the hospital to visit someone you love, don't bother with flowers or candy. Instead, bring a canister of bleach wipes and a pair of gloves. You could be saving a life.

Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of "Beating Obamacare." She reads the law so you don't have to. Visit www.betsymccaughey.com. To find out more about Betsy McCaughey and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

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