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The Deadly Epidemic America is Ignoring

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OFF THE RECORD: Rae Greulich said she was outraged that her husband’s death certificate cited “cardiac arrhythmia” as cause of death after he lost a months-long battle against multiple superbug infections following transplant surgery. REUTERS/David McNew

reutersFifteen years after the U.S. declared drug-resistant infections to be a grave threat, the crisis is only worsening, a Reuters investigation finds, as government agencies remain unwilling or unable to impose reporting requirements on a healthcare industry that often hides the problem.

RICHMOND, Va. – Josiah Cooper-Pope, born 15 weeks premature, did fine in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first 10 days of his life.

Then, suddenly, his tiny body started to swell. Overnight, he grew so distended that his skin split.

His mother, Shala Bowser, said nurses at Chippenham Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, told her that Josiah had an infection and that she should prepare for the worst. On Sept. 2, 2010, she was allowed to hold him for the first and last time as he took his final breath. He was 17 days old.

What no one at the hospital told Bowser was that her newborn was the fourth baby in the neonatal unit to catch the same infection, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus,better-known as MRSA. It would sicken eight more, records show – nearly every baby in the unit – before the outbreak had run its course.

The shock of her son’s death came back to her when, after being contacted by Reuters earlier this year about the outbreak, Bowser went to Virginia’s Division of Vital Records to get a copy of Josiah’s death certificate. The cause of death: “Sepsis due to (or as a consequence of): Prematurity.” Sepsis is a complication of infection, but there was no mention of MRSA.

“My heart hurts,” Bowser said, sobbing. “I saw what this did to him. And then they just threw a bunch of words on the death certificate.”

According to their death certificates, Emma Grace Breaux died at age 3 from complications of the flu; Joshua Nahum died at age 27 from complications related to a skydiving accident; and Dan Greulich succumbed to cardiac arrhythmia at age 64 after a combined kidney and liver transplant.

In each case – and in others Reuters found – death resulted from a drug-resistant bacterial infection contracted while the patients were receiving hospital care, medical records show. Their death certificates omit any mention of the infections.

Fifteen years after the U.S. government declared antibiotic-resistant infections to be a grave threat to public health, a Reuters investigation has found that infection-related deaths are going uncounted, hindering the nation’s ability to fight a scourge that exacts a significant human and financial toll.

Even when recorded, tens of thousands of deaths from drug-resistant infections – as well as many more infections that sicken but don’t kill people – go uncounted because federal and state agencies are doing a poor job of tracking them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the go-to national public health monitor, and state health departments lack the political, legal and financial wherewithal to impose rigorous surveillance.

As a result, they miss people like Natalie Silva of El Paso, Texas, who contracted a MRSA (pronounced MER-suh) infection after giving birth. She died from infection-related complications nearly a year later, at age 23.

Silva’s sisters fought a successful battle to get the hospital to cite MRSA on her death certificate. Still, her death went uncounted: The Texas health department doesn’t track deaths like hers from antibiotic-resistant infections, and neither does the CDC.

As America learned in the battle against HIV/AIDS, beating back a dangerous infectious disease requires an accurate count that shows where and when infections and deaths are occurring and who is most at risk. Doing so allows public health agencies to quickly allocate money and manpower where they are needed. But the United States hasn’t taken the basic steps needed to track drug-resistant infections.

“You need to know how many people are dying of a disease,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, a Washington-based health policy research organization. “For better or worse, that’s an indicator of how serious it is.”

Drug-resistant infections are left off death certificates for several reasons. Doctors and other clinicians get little training in how to fill out the forms. Some don’t want to wait the several days it can take for laboratory confirmation of an infection. And an infection’s role in a patient’s death may be obscured by other serious medical conditions.

There’s also a powerful incentive not to mention a hospital-acquired infection: Counting deaths is tantamount to documenting your own failures. By acknowledging such infections, hospitals and medical professionals risk potentially costly legal liability, loss of insurance reimbursements and public-relations damage.

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