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Staph Infections Take Heavy Toll on Hospitals

May contribute to nearly 12,000 deaths and add $9.5 billion to health costs, study suggests

TUESDAY, Aug. 9, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- In an effort to put a face on dangerous germs that haunt hospitals, researchers estimate that a type of staph infection may contribute to nearly 12,000 deaths and add an extra $9.5 billion to U.S. health-care costs each year.

The infections create an "enormous burden" for hospitals and the health-care system, said Dr. Gary Noskin, an infectious diseases specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and co-author of what's billed as the largest study of its kind. In many cases, he said, doctors have trouble treating afflicted patients because the germs have developed resistance to widely used antibiotics.

However, the findings don't shed light on how many of the infections are spread within the hospitals due to carelessness by doctors or nurses. And a staph specialist said it's unclear how many of the infections identified by the study are actually serious.

Still, there seems to be little debate that infections caused by the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium are major challenges for American hospitals. The germ is present in much of the population, often on the skin, but usually doesn't cause problems until someone develops a wound that allows it to enter the body.

The germ is especially dangerous when it enters the bloodstream, perhaps through an intravenous line. It can cause high fever, chills, confusion and shock, Noskin said, adding that in some cases, it is deadly.

In the new study, the researchers examined patient statistics from hundreds of hospitals. The data represented 14 million inpatient stays in 2000 and 2001. Then, the researchers extrapolated the numbers to the entire nation.

The study, which appears in the Aug. 8 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine , was funded in part by 3M Healthcare, which manufactures a number of hygiene products, including alcohol-based hand cleansers.

In nearly 1 percent of cases, patients suffered from S. aureus infection when they were released from the hospital or died. Those patients had longer hospital stays (an average of 14.3 days vs. 4.5 days) and five times the risk of death in the hospital (11.2 percent vs. 2.3 percent) than other patients.

The study didn't examine what happened to patients after they left the hospital.

It's not clear if the infections were responsible for significant health problems, said Frank Myers, an epidemiologist who oversees infection prevention at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. The data used in the study "can't differentiate between staph found on your skin that isn't making you sick and a staph infection that is causing a serious health condition," he noted.

Specialists say a variety of preventive methods could greatly reduce staph infections. Among other things, they say doctors and nurses could simply wash their hands more frequently, in addition to screening patients for staph bacteria and using equipment that's less susceptible to germ infection. Alcohol-based cleansers are helping, too, Myers said.

"It used to be that staff had to search out a sink to wash their hands," he said. "Now, in most situations we can bring a way to clean their hands and control staph as close as their pocket" with alcohol cleansers.

At the same time, however, staph infections acquired in hospitals are more dangerous than in the past, "not just because of the increasing resistance to antibiotics, but also because the patients in the hospital are sicker than they have ever been," Myers said. That makes them more vulnerable than ever to germs.

More information

Learn more about staph infections from Columbia University.

SOURCES: Gary Noskin, M.D., infectious diseases specialist and medical director, healthcare epidemiology and quality, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago; Frank Myers, C.I.C., manager, clinical epidemiology and safety systems, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; Aug. 8, 2005, Archives of Internal Medicine
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