Medical scopes and superbugs: Infection risk greater than previously thought

A duodenoscope linked to a recent outbreak of a lethal antibiotic-resistant superbug isn't the only medical scope that may be the source of deadly infections.

In fact, the risk of a serious infection from contaminated medical scopes is much broader than previously thought, according to the Los Angeles Times. Although infection experts have warned over the years that many endoscopes can remain dirty even after following the manufacturer's cleaning guidelines, the publication reports that doctors performing the procedures ignored the concerns.

In addition to the outbreak of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae among patients at the UCLA's Ronald Reagan Medical Center and in North Carolina undergoing procedures involving duodenoscopes, and a drug-resistant Escherichia coli (E. coli) strain in a Washington state hospital and the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, a federal database of injury reports reveals other infections linked to scopes.

For example, a medical scope used to examine patients' lungs infected 14 people with a superbug in December, the LA Times reports. A different scope used to examine the bladder caused infections in three patients in March. And seven patients became ill with clostridium difficile in November after undergoing colonscopies, the article said.

Scopes to examine the lungs, the colon, the bladder and the stomach are used tens of millions of time a year. But it's difficult to know how many patients are infected by the scopes because the federal injury reporting system is voluntary and doesn't include the names of the hospitals and clinics involved, according  to the LA Times.

The problem often goes unnoticed because medical staff believe the scope is properly disinfected after each procedure and use the device on multiple patients.

Scope manufacturers claim that the hospitals did not properly clean the devices. But even if staff follow the recommended disinfection guidelines, a device may still contain bacteria. Due to the intricate design of the devices, "you can't see inside the scope to determine whether you really did get it clean," Michelle Alfa, a professor at the University of Manitoba, told the publication.

Consumer Reports calls the rise of antibiotic superbugs the "health crisis of this generation," and last week reported that only 6 percent of 3,000 hospitals have controlled two of the most serious and prevalent infections causing bacteria--C.diff and MRSA.

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