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Infection: How Hospitals Are Breeding Grounds for Superbugs You've Never Even Heard Of

We don't think of hospitals as places where we can get sick. But that's what they are, far more commonly than the healthcare industry wants us to know.

Hospitalized for pneumonia, Lisa Thayer's mother was suddenly gripped with painful cramps and a bout of diarrhea that Thayer calls "explosive."

"It had a horribly distinctive smell -- a gross almost-sweetness that made me close my eyes. The hospital staff recognized it immediately," says Thayer, a Houston architect. "They said, 'Uh oh. It's C-diff.'"

Thayer had never heard of C-diff, aka Clostridium difficile: a potentially lethal colon-destroying bacteria. It spreads via fecal-oral contact. An infected person's feces contain bacteria that form sturdy disinfectant-resistant spores that can survive in the open for five months. A hand touches a contaminated surface, then enters a mouth. Think you're not eating shit? In hospitals, you quite possibly are.

According to a recent article in American Family Physician, 13 percent of patients hospitalized for up to two weeks catch Clostridium difficile, as do 50 percent of those hospitalized for four weeks or more. But you needn't be a patient to catch C-diff. All you need do is visit a hospital.

Over the last decade, C-diff has morphed into a superbug. A new epidemic strain emerged in 2004 that is now making C-diff ever more virulent, drug-resistant, prevalent and lethal. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that C-diff kills nearly 30,000 people in America every year. Some experts call this a low estimate.

We think of hospitals as places where diseases go away, not as places where we can get sick.

But that's what they are, far more commonly than the healthcare industry wants us to know. In a crisis that costs American hospitals some $40 billion every year, millions of infections are contracted annually within these ostensibly sanitary institutions. Collectively, they're called hospital-acquired infections, nosocomial infections or HAIs. Patients face the gravest risk, but visitors are far from immune.

C-diff is the meanest new microbial kid on the block, but it's not the only one. Another hospital-dwelling superbug is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, aka MRSA: a drug-resistant staph infection that is on the CDC's "high priority" list and kills about 18,000 every year in the US. Infection rates have skyrocketed since 1980 as MRSA evolves at warp speed, outsmarting antibiotics that now can't kill it. Contracted through cuts in the skin, MRSA can cause deadly bone, blood and organ infections. Nearly 90 percent of MRSA cases originate in hospitals.

Swing by to see Dad after his hip-replacement surgery, and you could catch something that ravages your bowels, causes flesh-eating pneumonia, and/or kills you.
Children, seniors and people with health problems -- especially those taking antibiotics or undergoing chemotherapy -- face the highest risk of contracting C-diff when visiting hospitals.

"But anyone can develop C-diff if the spores enter their mouth," says former New York State Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey, who combats HAIs through her advocacy group, the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. "Visiting a hospital recently, I saw a child in the elevator eating French fries and touching all the surfaces. I wished that I could explain to the parents that these invisible C-diff spores are on everything."

That is, everything that infected people's feces have touched. And those explosive, watery C-diff feces have a knack for traveling. We're talking walls, sinks, toilets, linens, light switches, furniture, wheelchairs, drapes, handles, knobs, telephones, trays, uniforms, buttons, doors and floors. Standard cleaning methods with alcohol and ammonia products won't kill C-diff spores; pretty much only bleach can.

"Don't bother using alcohol-based hand sanitizers," McCaughey warns. "They won't work. Wash with soap and water -- but even then, you're not killing the germs. Soap doesn't kill them. You're just washing them down the drain.

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