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Half of hospital rooms rife with drug-resistant bug, study finds

Nearly half of hospital rooms of patients infected with drug-resistant strains of Acinetobacter baumannii are contaminated with the bacteria, a small new survey shows. Surfaces such as bedrails, drawer handles and touchpads are particularly prone to harboring the germ.

That could pose big problems for hospital staff and future patients if existing cleaning practices don’t get rid of one of the top 10 germs responsible for serious health care-acquired infections, said Dr. Kerri A. Thom, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

“Fairly frequently we find these important pathogens are inhabiting these high-touch surfaces,” said Thom, noting that previous studies have detected surface contamination with bugs responsible for worrisome MRSA and Clostridium difficile infections.

“This does reflect a potential source of transmission of bacteria from one patient to the next.”

Thom and her team analyzed rooms of 50 intensive care patients infected with multi-drug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, a strain of bacteria increasingly responsible for hard-to-treat infections in soldiers returning from combat – and in hospital critical care units.

Testing of 10 sites in each room – door knobs, bedrails, ventilator touch pads, floors and more – found at least one area was colonized with A. baumannii bacteria in 48 percent of rooms.

Supply cart drawer handles were most commonly contaminated, with 20 percent testing positive, followed by floors, infusion pumps and touch pads. Ten percent of bedrails harbored the germs, according to the study published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

Most of the strains of bacteria found in the rooms – 85 percent – matched the strains in the patients themselves, the study found.

While that raises chicken-and-egg questions about whether the contamination caused the infection or vice-versa, it also points to the importance of good hospital cleaning practices, said Russell Olmsted, an infection control expert and president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

“What looks clean might actually be contaminated,” said Olmsted, noting that more hospitals have increased efforts to double-check that all surfaces in patient rooms are thoroughly disinfected. "This is a tough bug."

Acinetobacter baumannii poses a particular problem because it’s a hardy strain that can survive for days, even months on inanimate surfaces, Olmsted said. Most hospital cleaners can disarm it, but crews must be careful to reach every spot -- especially those in high-traffic areas.

Patients worried about lingering bacteria in hospitals might be tempted to resort to do-it-yourself disinfection, but they should resist the urge, said Olmsted and Thom.

Bringing your own bleach spray or wipes could cause problems by clashing with other hospital cleaning products or interfering with some kinds of medical equipment.

Instead, patients or their family members can inspect a room before getting settled, making sure to look for obvious lapses in cleanliness. They can ask staff to verify that a room has been cleaned. And they can make sure to request that all health workers wash their hands before providing any kind of care.

“The message that we’re sending overall to patients is to be an advocate for their own care,” Thom said. “It’s OK to ask.”

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