Thursday, 30 Mar 2023

Hospital patients’ hands are covered in antibiotic resistant superbugs

Hospital patients’ hands are covered in antibiotic resistant superbugs, study suggests

  • Antibiotic resistant infections are difficult or impossible to treat 
  • The World Health Organization considers the spread of antibiotic resistance a top public health concern 
  • Superbugs are especially common in hospitals and are mostly thought to be spread by doctors, nurses and staff 
  • But a new University of Michigan study suggests that patients’ hands are often contaminated, suggesting patients need better hygiene to stop the spread 

Shortly after being admitted to hospitals, 14 percent of patients’ hands and nostrils are teeming with antibiotic resistant superbugs, a new study suggests.

And it’s not just hospital workers that are responsible for the spread – patients are likely spreading the germs around their rooms and to one another.   

Antibiotic resistance is considered a top public health concern by the World Health Organization, as the untreatable bugs are becoming more common and could render drugs useless. 

Hospitals are known to be fertile breeding grounds for dangerous superbugs, making thorough hand-washing practices more crucial than ever to patient safety. 

But the new pair of studies suggests that hospitals have a long way to go to keep antibiotic resistance in check. 

Hospitals emphasize the importance of hand-washing for health care providers, but new research suggests patients’ hands are spreading antibiotic resistant superbugs, too (file) 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) healthcare workers only wash their hands about half as often as they should. 

Partly as a result, about one in 31 patients in a hospital contracts an infection during their stay. 

It’s a constant and uphill battle as patients file in with their own bacteria, and infections, are treated by doctors and nurses in close contact, and spaces shared by hundreds if not dozens of other sick and injured people. 

The problem is made worse by hasty attempts at solutions. For decades, doctors have been over-prescribing antibiotics to treat infections that are often viral, meaning the drugs are useless to treat them. 

And even over-use of sanitizers has in fact helped bacteria ‘learn’ the medicines and products designed to kill them, mutating and reproducing more resistant bacteria.  

To get a sense of how superbugs were being spread to patients, researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor followed 399 patients in two of their hospitals. 

Shortly after the patients were first admitted, the team swabbed their hands and nostrils for germs. 

To begin with, 14 percent of the patients were colonized with bacteria that were resistant to multiple forms of treatment upon arrival – meaning they were present in their nostrils, but not causing an active infection. 

Ten percent of the patients had resistant bacteria living on their hands. 

Rooms were also tested for bacteria, and the team found that 29 percent of them had populations of resistant bacteria. 

Six percent of patients picked up new antibiotic resistant germs on their hands over the courses of their stays at the two hospitals. 

And six patient contracted actual infections. They all got antibiotic-resistant MRSA, which was detected on the hands, nostrils or rooms as well. 

The researchers also looked at how often patients picked up VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci) and RGNB (resistant gram-negative bacteria). 

MRSA was the most common form of bacteria, but all three were present on patient hands, in their nostrils and in their rooms, according to the study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. 

Nurse call buttons, bed controls, and bedside tray tables were most likely to be teeming with bacteria, and the researchers considered them primary culprits for hand-transmission of the superbugs. 

A third of the rooms were contaminated before new patients were settled into them, and nearly 40 percent of patients had matching bugs on their hands within 48 hours of arrival. Many acquired the bacteria even sooner – in as little as eight hours after admission. 

‘While the burden of preventing infections has largely been borne by [health care providers], our study shows that patient hands are an important reservoir and play a crucial role in the transmission of pathogens in acute care hospital,’ the study authors wrote.

‘Thus, patient hand hygiene protocols should be implemented and tested for their ability to reduce environmental contamination, pathogen transmission, and healthcare-associated infections as well as to increase meaningful patient engagement in infection prevention.’ 

In short: if you find yourself in a hospital, make sure to do your part and wash your hands, well and often.    

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