24 July 2009

Federal plan to reduce HAIs: public meetings

Let's switch back for a moment to MRSA and other infections in hospitals. An estimated 1.7 million healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) occur in the US each year. Approximately 99,000 of the infected die. Care for the infected costs the health care system $33 billion (yes, with a B) each year.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (parent agency of the CDC, USDA, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, etc.) in late June issued a draft of a National Action Plan to Prevent Healthcare-Associated Infections. The plan is here (.pdf, 116 pages). It calls for more research, changes in regulation of health care, more disclosure and significant simplification of the more than 1,200 actions for reducing HAIs that are currently recommended in government documents (yes, 1,200.)

HHS is taking the plan on the road: Before Labor Day, there will be public meetings to air the plan in Denver (tomorrow, July 25), Chicago (July 30) and Seattle (Aug. 27). If you are concerned at all about HAIs and government and health care industry response to them, these meetings would be a good place to be.

The HHS statement about the plan and the meetings, including contact information to sign up to attend, is here. Go, already.

23 July 2009

Decolonization: disappointing news

I know that many of you who are MRSA patients, especially with recurrent infections, are especially interested in the issue of decolonization, the grueling regimen of antibiotic nasal gel (containing mupirocin; usually sold as Bactroban) combined with body washes with chlorhexidine (Hibiclens) that is believed to eradicate MRSA carriage in the nose and on the skin. Decolonization is an essential part of the "search and destroy" measures practiced by zero-tolerance hospitals who want to detect any MRSA transport in their institution, and it is a last-ditch hope in recurrent community-strain infections. (I told the story of several women's struggles with recurrent infections in SELF and Health magazines.)

It's disheartening, then, to realize that decolonization is not a universally agreed-upon measure, and there is relatively little research that can say in which setting (household, hospital, ICU) it works best, and why. There have been a few studies, and a few review papers summing up studies, on the role that decolonization can play in reducing the risk of infection in already hospitalized, colonized patients — ones about to undergo surgery, for instance. A meta-analysis by the Cochrane group, of 8 trials, found that decolonization in the hospital did reduce the likelihood of infections in surgical patients.

The role that decolonization can play in short-circuiting community infections is much less clear, though there are many, many people who have suffered recurrent infections and testify that it worked for them. (Please speak up in the comments if you are!) One problem is that outside hospitals, there is no one recommended regimen: One physician might tell her patient to use mupirocin and chlorhexdine only, whereas another might tell his patient to also take bleach baths, or bleach all the laundry or household surfaces. The CDC has so far declined to put its muscle behind decolonization in community-strain infections, recommending only that frustrated patients with recurrences seek the advice of an infectious-disease specialist. (See this flowchart of treatment options (.pdf) that the CDC published in 2007.)

Comes now the infectious-diseases division of Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, whom some of you will recognize as being among the most successful and evangelical practitioners of "search and destroy" in the United States. (ENW has recently been renamed NorthShore University HealthSystem and is affiliated with Northwestern University. Disclosure, in case you care: I went to grad school at Northwestern, though not in medicine.) In a paper published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, the group evaluates the use and success rate of decolonization in ENW/NorthShore's 3 hospitals and finds, well, not such good news: a temporary reduction in patients' being colonized with MRSA, but no success in preventing infection.

This is an important and troubling finding, because decolonization comes with costs. There is the obvious cost to hospitals (and the follow-on cost to insurance companies and consumers) of paying for mupirocin and chlorhexidine themselves. But there is also a hidden cost that we here should be particularly sensitive to: Because mupirocin is being used so lavishly, mupirocin resistance is rising.

In the same issue of ICHE (which, yes, is pronounced Itchy), a related editorial by Dutch researchers reviews the difficulty of conducting decolonization trials, but summarizes the ENW/NorthShore study as not an endorsement of decolonization regimens:
It is clear that staphylococcal carriage is an important risk factor for infection and that eradication of carriage has proven successful for patients who are undergoing elective surgery. For other groups of patients, it is still unclear what the benefits are. It is obvious that indiscriminate use of mupirocin is associated with development of resistance. Therefore, additional studies are warranted to define the optimal MRSA decolonization strategy, including what should be given, to whom, and at what moment and who should guide and supervise the regimen.
The cites are:
Robicsek A, Beaumont JL, Thomson RB Jr et al. Topical therapy for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus colonization: impact on infection risk. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2009 Jul;30(7):623-32.
Kluytmans J, Harbarth S. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus decolonization: "Yes, we can," but will it help? Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2009 Jul;30(7):633-5.

22 July 2009

New England Journal editorial: MRSA, H1N1 parallels

There's a very interesting piece in a recent New England Journal of Medicine (unfortunately, only the abstract is online) that draws parallels between MRSA and public expectations for pandemic flu. Written by Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, chief of infection control at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and one of the authors of the "Medical Examiner" column at Slate, it's an exploration of microbial sleight of hand: We were looking in one direction for a problem to develop, and — like Wile E. Coyote staring after the Road Runner but missing the Acme anvil — the problem came around and socked us in the back of the head.

In the case of flu, Sepkowitz writes, we concentrated on the threat of H5N1 avian influenza — the focus, until H1N1/swine flu arrived, of billions of dollars and years of effort in pandemic preparation — but were surprised by the sudden catastrophic emergence of seasonal flu strains resistant to oseltamivir (Tamiflu), one of the few antiviral drugs that can reduce illness and death from flu if taken early enough. In the case of MRSA, medicine focused on containing the spread of hospital MRSA and its rare transformation into VRSA, vancomycin-resistant staph — and mostly discounted, until far too late, the enormous threat of community MRSA strains:
The intensity of our concern and the frequency of the doomsday dispatches were appropriate. We were simply chasing the wrong microbe. It is community-acquired MRSA, not VRSA... that now occupies the center of the public health stage. And just about everything predicted for VRSA has come true for community-acquired MRSA. It's everywhere; it's deadly; it has changed the day-to-day management of skin infections and pneumonia in clinics, emergency rooms and intensive care units. It's a true public health disaster. It's just a different disaster from the one we were exercised about.
As we wrangle the new threat of H1N1, Sepkowitz warns that it is vital to remember how many millennia of practice microbes have in foiling our expectations:
We should marvel at the raw, restless power of microbes. They have the numbers — trillions and quadrillions and more that replicate wildly, inaccurately and disinterestedly. Nothing microbes do, whether under the duress imposed by antimicrobials or from some less evident pressure, should surprise us. It's their world; we only live in it.
(Image courtesy Sansceo Design)

Media round-up: recommending MRSA stories

By chance — or is it because interest is really picking up? — a couple of worthwhile stories on MRSA have been published almost simultaneously:
  • For when the science gets wonky: Environmental Health Perspectives has an excellent lay-language explanation of how drug resistance emerges and spreads — with gorgeous graphics!
  • For when yet another drug doesn't work: Scientific American covers development of new antibiotics, and even more important, development of new ways of creating antibiotics.
  • For yet more depressing news about MRSA in meat: Prevention adds to the discussion of MRSA in the food supply with a "special report" review. Constant readers who have been following along as we've drilled into this topic over the past two years won't find a lot new, except for an intriguing account of an outbreak of MRSA in an Arkansas chicken plant (in which the bug went disappointingly untyped, so we don't know whether it was a human strain or ST398). The story hits on issues we have talked about here: Surveillance for MRSA in animals is non-existent, practically speaking, and when the bug is found, investigation falls between human and animal health agencies. It's a longer than usual story for Prevention, and should bring the knotty food-policy questions around MRSA in meat to a new audience.

13 July 2009

Antibiotic overuse in animals: Obama administration comes out against

For anyone who cares about the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, and the resistant bacteria that overuse has been shown to produce, this is important news.

In testimony today, new FDA Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein announced the administration's opposition to the use of growth promoters: sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics used not as disease treatment, but to encourage animals to put weight on rapidly. Further, he also came out against the administration of antibiotics in food animals without the involvement of a veterinarian — a common situation out here in farm country, where veterinary antibiotics are freely available over the counter. (We discussed Scott Weese's proposal to end that practice here.)

Both of these practices have been repeatedly linked to antibiotic resistance, and for the administration to come out against them is highly significant — not just for the struggle against resistant bacteria, but also for the movement to reduce industrial-scale agriculture, which relies on antibiotics to keep food animals healthy while they are in the close confinement of CAFOs.

Sharfstein made the announcement while giving testimony on behalf of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY)'s Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009, which has been introduced (and opposed into nonexistence) multiple times over the past decade. (Earlier post on the legislation, including its text, here.) He said:
To avoid the unnecessary development of resistance under conditions of constant exposure (growth promotion/feed efficiency) to antibiotics, the use of antimicrobials should be limited to those situations where human and animal health are protected. Purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use. ...
Important factors in determining whether a prevention use is appropriate include evidence of effectiveness, evidence that such a preventive use is consistent with accepted veterinary practice, evidence that the use is linked to a specific etiologic agent, evidence that the use is appropriately targeted, and evidence that no reasonable alternatives for intervention exist. FDA also believes that the use of medications for preventino and control should be under the supervision of a veterinarian. ...
FDA supports the treatment of ill animals according to appropriate veterinary practice within a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship.
Also on the docket at Slaughter's hearing:
  • Margaret Mellon, PhD, of the Union of Concerned Scientists (who specifically discussed MRSA ST398): "As long as the massive use of antibiotics continues, animals ... will remain a fountain of resistant pathogens, dangerous to both animals and humans. The straightforward solution to the problem is to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal production and thereby diminish the pool of resistant organisms and traits."
  • Robert Martin of the Pew Environment Group (Pew Charitable Trusts): "The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health, damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food."
  • And statements of support from the Chipotle restaurant chain and the Bon Appetit Management Company (which operates catering services in corporations and universities).

Of note, the Pew Commission on Human Health and Industrial Farming, which supports Slaughter's bill, said after the hearing that Sharfstein's proposals are only necessary but not sufficient: "“The proposed FDA position does not go far enough in this regard and would allow the continuation of conditions that necessitate the improper use of antibiotics in the first place."

09 July 2009


Folks, it's been a little busy in my non-blog world, but here's why:

SUPERBUG now has a publication date!
And — even more exciting — it has a cover! (And it's gorgeous.)

And I'll be able to reveal both of them soon — when the publisher's spring catalog is published.

Not long now. Stay tuned, please.