Widely adopted method for thwarting MRSA fails in hospital that developed it

Enlarge / Baby in an intensive care unit of a California hospital. (credit: Getty | Irfan Khan )

Between August and March, a deadly superbug spread to 10 infants in the intensive care unit of UC-Irvine Medical Center—the hospital where researchers developed a leading strategy to prevent the spread of that very superbug, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The hospital’s strategy, referred to as “universal decolonization,” is thought to prevent the superbug, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), from leaping from patient to patient. It involves washing every ICU patient—colonized or not—with a potent disinfectant, chlorhexidine, and rubbing the topical antibiotic mupirocin inside their noses, where Staph aureus can sometimes lurk. It was developed years ago, in part by Dr. Susan Huang, the hospital’s infection-control expert, and the practice has swept through the country since. According to Huang, 65 to 80 percent of hospitals in the US are now using the strategy.

But as soon as Huang and colleagues published their data on the method in 2013, experts challenged the results and raised concerns about hidden side-effects—notably that germs of all kinds can develop resistance to chlorhexidine and mupirocin with routine exposure. And since its widespread use, MRSA infection rates in the US have not budged. The new outbreak at UC-Irvine is dredging up old questions about the practice and how best to prevent deadly germs from running rampant amid vulnerable patients.

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