BY MICHAEL MILLENSON
There’s an infection that afflicts thousands of Americans yearly, killing an estimated one in five of those who contract it, and costs tens of thousands of dollars per person to treat. Though there’s a proven way to dramatically reduce or even eliminate it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inexplicably seems in no hurry to do so.
Unlike Ebola, this infection isn’t transmitted from person to person, with the health care system desperately racing to keep up. Instead, it’s caused by the health care system when clinicians don’t follow established anti-infection protocols – very much like what happened when Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital encountered its first Ebola patient. That hospital’s failure flashes a warning sign to all of us.
The culprit in this case is called CLABSI, short for “central-line associated bloodstream infection.” A central line is a catheter placed into a patient’s torso to make it easier to infuse critical medications or draw blood. Because the lines are inserted deep into patients already weakened by illness, an infection can be catastrophic.
CLABSIs are deadlier than typhoid fever or malaria. Last year alone they affected more than 10,000 adults, according to hospital reports to the CDC, and nearly 1,700 children, according to an analysis of hospital discharge records. The infections also cost an average of nearly $46,000 per patient to treat, adding up to billions of dollars yearly.
At one time, CLABSIs were thought to be largely unavoidable. But in 2001, Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins, simplified existing guidelines into an easy five-step checklist with items like “wash hands” and “clean patient’s skin with an antibacterial agent.” Hopkins’ CLABSI rate plunged.