MRSA outbreak among infants at UC Irvine hospital undisclosed for months: 9 things to know

An outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus sickened 10 critically ill infants over the course of eight months at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif. While the Orange County Health Department has known about the outbreak since December 2016, the situation was just recently made public, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.

While MRSA mostly causes skin infections among the general public, infection with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria can result in a host of illnesses in the healthcare setting including bloodstream infections, pneumonia and surgical site infections. Among patients with compromised immune systems, MRSA can be deadly.

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Here are nine things to know about the MRSA outbreak at UC Irvine Medical Center.

1. The 10 infected infants were treated in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit when they became infected. County health officials learned of the outbreak when five infants tested positive for the same strain of MRSA in December 2016. Two more infants tested positive later that month, one tested positive in February and the last newborn to test positive for MRSA did so on March 26, according to the report.

2. None of the infants have died, and none have active infections.

3. The source of the infection remains a mystery, but the hospital did take precautions to limit the superbugs' spread: In January, four employees tested positive for the same strain of MRSA, but were treated and have since tested negative, according to the report. In total, 220 employees used antiseptic soap and ointment on their skin and in their noses to kill MRSA to quell the outbreak, and staff and visitors wear gowns and gloves when visiting the infants, among other precautions.

4. The outbreak was brought to public attention after patient safety advocate Marian Hollingsworth filed a complaint with the state regarding the situation. Ms. Hollingsworth reportedly learned about the outbreak from a friend who works at the UC Irvine hospital complex, according to the LA Times.

5. County health officials did not notify the public about the outbreak because they said evidence did not suggest infants being treated in the neonatal unit were at higher risk than infants admitted elsewhere in the hospital, according to the report.

6. Hospital officials did not warn families expecting infants of the outbreak because the infected patients were isolated, according to the report.

7. State health officials began investigating the outbreak on March 20. The investigation concluded on April 3, clearing the hospital of wrongdoing.

8. In statement provided to Becker's Hospital Review, UC Irvine spokesperson John Murray said, "Our goal is to ensure the safety of our patients and eradicate the presence of any drug-resistant bacteria in our neonatal intensive care unit. All hospitals must periodically manage the presence of drug-resistant bacteria. Since it is not possible to completely eliminate risk, the objective is to develop and sustain an infection prevention program that minimizes the risk of transmission. That is what we did; our aggressive approach was validated by the Orange County Healthcare Agency and California Department of Public Health and presence of the bacteria was not deemed to be a threat to public health."

9. Lisa McGiffert, a prominent patient safety advocate and the director of the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project, commented on the situation in the LA Times report. Ms. McGiffert said that while outbreaks of this kind are sometimes uncovered by the media or written about retrospectively in medical journals, many stay completely under wraps. Ms. McGiffert told the LA Times the public has the right to know about all outbreaks and that such public disclosures would result in hospitals working more diligently on infection prevention efforts.

"Patients have the right to know," she said, according to the report.

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