Hospital Faces Heat for Poorly Handling an Infant MRSA Outbreak
Pregnant women admitted to give birth weren't informed
County and hospital health officials are trying to determine how 10 infants were infected with the same strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) between August 2016 and March 2017. They are facing potential consequences after a state official filed a complaint over the hospital’s decision not to inform mothers who were coming to the facility to give birth about the situation.
None of the infants died, but were already critically ill when they were infected. MRSA is especially dangerous for preemies, and about 26% of infants infected with the superbug die while in the ICU, according to one study.
In addition to being potentially deadly, the strain of MRSA involved in the outbreak can harm infants’ brain development and growth in early childhood.
Four staff members also tested positive for MRSA in January, but all are currently negative, according to a hospital statement.
The outbreak occurred at the University of California Irvine Medical Center’s neonatal unit, and doctors have yet to find the source. The infection continued to spread even after 220 employees used antiseptic soap and ointment to eliminate bacteria on their skin and noses.
Orange County health officials have been aware of the continuing hospital-acquired infections since December, when 5 infants tested positive for the same superbug. That month, 2 more babies were sickened. Yet another infant tested positive in February, and 2 more in March.
UCI officials didn’t deem it was necessary to inform families planning to give birth at the hospital about the ongoing outbreak. They claim this was because there wasn’t any evidence that infants treated at the UCI neonatal unit were at higher risk than infants admitted to other hospitals. The infected babies were isolated in 1 of the hospital’s 2 intensive care units for infants, those officials said. New patients are only now being admitted into the other unit.  
The last time an infant tested positive for MRSA at UCI was on March 26, according to hospital officials. That child has since tested negative for the infection, and none of the infants have active infections.
The only reason the outbreak came to the public’s attention is because Marian Hollingsworth, who sits on a state advisory committee on hospital-acquired infections, filed a complaint about UCI’s actions with the state, and the Los Angeles Times found out about it.
Hollingsworth says it looks like UCI and government health officials were attempting to quietly handle the outbreak internally. She learned of the infections from a friend who works at the UCI hospital complex. Hollingsworth believes the hospital should have notified pregnant women being admitted to deliver their infants.
“You never know if your baby will end up in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit]. I would have wanted to know.”
Susan Huang, UCI’s medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention, argues that hospital officials worked aggressively to try to prevent more infections using measures “that meet or exceed best industry practices.”
According to Huang, UCI has been disclosing the outbreak in a letter to parents of all infants since last month. Prior to that, she says staff had been instructed to disclose MRSA infections to parents as their babies were being tested or treated for the infections. The hospital has not been testing patients in other areas of the hospital for the MRSA strain.
The World Health Organization in February declared MRSA 1 of the 12 families of bacteria that “pose the greatest threat to human health,” and urged the scientific community to urgently ramp up efforts to develop new antibiotics that can kill superbugs. 
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, said in a statement:
“Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”
UCI has launched multiple initiatives to prevent the bacteria from spreading any further, including screening all infants for MRSA during admission and on a weekly basis, using bacterial nose ointments and antiseptic soaps on infants, and ensuring staff and visitors clean mobile devices with alcohol wipes before putting them into plastic bags.
Says UCI spokesman John Murray:
“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.”
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.