Nationwide model to stop deadly superbugs may not work so well after all

Seven infants became sick in December at a California hospital’s intensive care unit despite the use of a long-held strategy to prevent deadly superbug infections. (NIAID)

Infection control experts are rethinking a long-held strategy to prevent deadly superbug infections after an outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in a California hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

The strategy, developed in 2013 by Susan Huang, M.D., an infection control expert at UC Irvine Medical Center, is now used in 65% to 80% of hospitals across the country. The protocol treats all patients in the ICU with daily disinfectant baths and antibiotic nasal swipes. But the method didn’t work at the California hospital’s intensive care unit, where seven infants became sick in December, the Los Angeles Times reports.

In addition to bathing all infants in the ICU with a disinfectant and swabbing their noses with an antibiotic, the hospital also isolated the infected babies and made sure nurses washed their hands, according to the article. But the measures didn’t work. Three more infants tested positive for MRSA in February and March.

Huang declined an interview with the Los Angeles Times, but in a written statement told the newspaper, “We want the strategies we employ to work 100% of the time, but that’s not always possible.”

Still, the protocol’s failure has fueled the ongoing debate on whether the established method is the best way to stop the superbug. Experts have worried that treating all patients with the disinfectant and antibiotic could make bacteria more resistant to drugs. And some advocate for hospitals to screen all inpatients for MRSA, a costly but effective method for reducing the incidence of the often-deadly bacteria.

Recent research has also pointed to hospital floors and sinks as potential culprits in the spread of MRSA. Researchers hope the results of that study will bring more attention to the infection risk posed by floors, which are not often considered in the conversation on infection control.