Hospitals can wash hands of superbug

Shocking reports of babies dying of infection in hospital have generated sensational headlines. 

Yet it is not just a problem in the developing world. Hospitals in some of the wealthiest countries, such as those in Scandinavia, Western Europe, the Middle East and North America, have all witnessed an alarming growth of MRSA infection.
In England alone, it has been estimated that about 300000 hospital patients are infected annually and, of that number, 5000 die.      

This is why MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, to give it its full name, has been described by experts as being “out of control” in hospitals throughout the world.

Yet S. aureus is a common type of bacteria found in one out of every four people. The bacteria lies dormant on the skin and in the nasal passages without causing any problems. However, if that staph bacterium enters the person’s body, there could be an infection. In the vast majority of cases, it is something insignificant such as a pimple or a small abrasion. It is when people are undergoing treatment in hospitals that the symptoms of the infection tend to be far more severe. And the way to that infection is no mystery: it is transferred through wounds, catheters or any of the many tubes that can be inserted into the body.

Exacerbating the problem is the weak immune system of those suffering from illness, the elderly and small babies. Particularly prone to MRSA infections are those patients receiving long-term hospital treatments such as kidney dialysis or cancer remedies. Once infected, MRSA can quickly spread to the heart, lungs, blood or the bones.

Clean your hands
What makes it so dangerous is that, being resistant to the antibiotics that are commonly used to fight staph bacteria infections, such as methicillin, penicillin, ampicillin, oxacillin and others, it is extremely difficult to treat. The old adage of prevention is better than cure certainly resonates with this bacteria.

For several years, the National Health System (NHS) in the United Kingdom has run an awareness and communication campaign that has achieved astounding results. The high-profile “clean your hands” campaign is aimed at doctors, nurses, hospital workers and those visiting patients.

Simply reminding medical staff to wash their hands, be it with soap and water or a waterless antibacterial gel, before they entered a ward or before they started to examine a patient, halved the number of infections that occurred before the campaign was launched.  

British tabloid the Daily Mail went as far as claiming that “Washing hands has saved more lives than any medical breakthrough in a generation”. 

Since the campaign started in 2004, it is estimated that 10000 lives have been saved. Moreover, the NHS saved the equivalent of R12.5-billion, which would have been spent on treating people who contracted MRSA.

It is an impressive return on an initial investment of the equivalent of R6-million in the communication campaign since it started.

Another indication of the success of the campaign is that since 2004 the NHS has tripled its purchases of soap and alcohol hand rub.

In South Africa, when entering intensive- and high-care wards in most private hospitals there are reminders that hands must be washed.
But the question remains whether South African hospitals, in the private and public sectors, have been as vigorous and as focused as their NHS counterparts. As any advertiser will tell you, the secret of any successful communication campaign in changing behaviour is to repeat an easily understood message and for it to be consistent and ubiquitous.

Infection control will be the topic of Bonitas House Call on May 26 at 9am on SABC2

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