MRSA in a hospital nursery

Via the Boston Globe and the blog of the hospital’s CEO comes work of an ongoing outbreak of community-associated MRSA in the newborn nursery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston:

…between last November and March, BIDMC experienced several occurrences or “clusters” of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, infections that have affected some of our patients (19 newborns and 18 mothers) days to weeks after discharge from our obstetrics and newborn services. These infections have been, for the most part, superficial skin infections and breast infections. It is important to note that no babies in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit have been affected. (Paul Levy, president and CEO, BIDMC)

The paper and the blog post report that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are all investigating, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has sent epidemiologists to sort out transmission. Levy, the CEO, admits on his blog that in sorting out this outbreak, the hospital has found its staff’s infection-control procedures to be not-adequate.

By sheer chance, this occurs as I am writing a chapter on just this phenomenon of the blurring of the MRSA epidemics of hospital-acquired and community-associated staph. As constant readers know, the original MRSA strains arose in hospitals in the 1960s (1961 in the UK, 1968 in the US), and the separate community strain was first noticed in the 1990s. (Though there are intriguing hints about earlier cases that a few smart physicians noticed and no one else took seriously.)

But for about 5 years now, the community strain has been moving into hospitals and causing outbreaks there, particularly in mothers and newborns: first in New York City, and then in Houston, and now quite widely. The Globe article references some others.

Why this is important: Because CA-MRSA and HA-MRSA are different, and not just because they originally occurred in different settings or had different resistance profiles. CA-MRSA (which is a term that is obviously becoming much less useful than it once was) also appears, in newer research, to colonize the body in different ways — not just the nostrils, but also the armpit, groin, and genitals, possibly including vaginal colonization. So there may be an additional risk of transmission from mother to child during birth that has not been anticipated — or from mother to child to health care worker to another child to that child’s mother.

Now, mind you: Good infection control ought to anticipate all those posibilities, because good infection control does the right thing every time. But as we’re finding out, very few institutions manage to train their staff in such a way that they do the right thing every time or close to it (Novant Health Care, creators of the Soapacabana video, seem to have managed it, and won a major award for it). Most health care workers, even very well-intentioned ones, find themselves in time crunches or responding to unexpected emergencies, and make risk-based judgments about what they must do, and what they can afford to let slide.

If CA-MRSA is becoming a hospital organism, and its unique risks of colonization are not recognized by the hospital staff, then their judgments of relative risk will be off — and what would have been a relatively safe risk to take in one instance becomes a significantly unsafe risk in another.

That’s all speculation, of course: I’m not reporting on Beth Israel and have no inside knowledge of their outbreak. But it does describe a phenomenon that has been occurring in other medical centers, and it underlines one of the risks attendant on these epidemics blurring. When CA-MRSA moves into a hospital, the MRSA ecology changes, and the risks of transmission change. It is essential that staff training keep up with that, or additional mistakes will be made.


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