By analyzing strains of the bacterium from a hospital ICU, the scientists learned that most infections were triggered within patients, not from cross-transmission
Tracking the source of Hospital-acquired infections (HAI) has long been centered around the assumption that most HAIs originate from cross-transmission within the hospital or healthcare setting. And prevention measures are costly for hospitals and medical laboratories. However, new research puts a surprising new angle on a different source for some proportion of these infections.
The study suggests that most infections caused by Clostridioides difficile (C. Diff), the bacterium most responsible for HAIs, arise not from cross-transmission in the hospital, but within patients who already carry the bacterium.
A researcher performed whole genome sequencing on 425 strains of the bacterium isolated from the samples and found “very little evidence that the strains of C. diff from one patient to the next were the same, which would imply in-hospital acquisition,” according to a UM news story.
“In fact, there were only six genomically supported transmissions over the study period. Instead, people who were already colonized were at greater risk of transitioning to infection,” UM stated.
Arianna Miles-Jay, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in The Snitkin Lab at the University of Michigan and Manager of the Genomic Analysis Unit at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, performed the genomic sequencing. “By systematically culturing every patient, we thought we could understand how transmission was happening. The surprise was that, based on the genomics, there was very little transmission,” she said in the UM news story.
“Something happened to these patients that we still don’t understand to trigger the transition from C. diff hanging out in the gut to the organism causing diarrhea and the other complications resulting from infection,” said Evan Snitkin, PhD (above), Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Michigan, in a UM news story. Medical laboratories involved in hospital-acquired infection prevention understand the importance of this research and its effect on patient safety. (Photo copyright: University of Michigan.)
Only a Fraction of HAIs Are Through Cross-Transmission
In the study abstract, the researchers wrote that “despite enhanced infection prevention efforts, Clostridioides difficile remains the leading cause of healthcare-associated infections in the United States.”
Citing data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HealthDay reported that “nearly half a million C. diff infections occur in the United States each year. Between 13,000 and 16,000 people die from the bacterium, which causes watery diarrhea and inflammation of the colon. Many of these infections and deaths have been blamed on transmission between hospitalized patients.”
The new study, however, notes that 9.3% of the patients admitted to the ICU carried toxigenic (produces toxins) C. diff, but only 1% acquired it via cross-transmission. The carriers, the study authors wrote, “posed minimal risk to others,” but were 24 times more likely to develop a C. diff infection than non-carriers.
“Our findings suggest that measures in place in the ICU at the time of the study—high rates of compliance with hand hygiene among healthcare personnel, routine environmental disinfection with an agent active against C. diff, and single patient rooms —were effective in preventing C. diff transmission,” Snitkin told HealthDay. “This indicates that to make further progress in protecting patients from developing C. diff infections will require improving our understanding of the triggers that lead patients asymptomatically carrying C. diff to transition to having infections.”
Recognizing Risk Factors
Despite the finding that infections were largely triggered within the patients, the researchers still emphasized the importance of taking measures to prevent hospital-acquired infections.
“In fact, the measures in place in the Rush ICU at the time of the study—high rates of compliance with hand hygiene among healthcare personnel, routine environmental disinfection with an agent active against C. diff, and single patient rooms—were likely responsible for the low transmission rate,” the UM news story noted.
One expert not involved with the study suggested that hospitals’ use of antibiotics may be a factor in causing C. diff carriers to develop infections.
“These findings suggest that while we should continue our current infection prevention strategies, attention should also be given to identifying the individuals who are asymptomatic carriers and finding ways to reduce their risk of developing an infection, like carefully optimizing antibiotic usage and recognizing other risk factors,” Hannah Newman, Senior Director of Infection Prevention at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay.
Snitkin, however, told HealthDay that other factors are likely at play. “There is support for antibiotic disruption of the microbiota being one type of trigger event, but there is certainly more to it than that, as not every patient who carries C. diff and receives antibiotics will develop an infection.”
Another expert not involved with the study told HealthDay that “many patients are already colonized,” especially older ones or those who have been previously hospitalized.
“A lot of their normal flora in their GI tract can be altered either through surgery or antibiotics or some other mechanism, and then symptoms occur, and that’s when they are treated with antibiotics,” said Donna Armellino, RN, Senior VP of Infection Prevention at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York.
This research also demonstrates the value of faster, cheaper, more accurate gene sequencing for researching life-threatening conditions. Microbiologists, Clinical laboratory scientists, and pathologists will want monitor further developments involving these findings as researchers from University of Michigan and Rush University Medical Center continue to learn more about the source of C. diff infections.
Federal officials want to head off “supply chain issues” that developed in the past with reliance on tests made overseas, and to address a possible COVID-19 surge during the fall and winter, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
In fact, 500 million tests have already been distributed through US government channels to long-term care facilities, schools, and low-income senior housing.
“Manufacturing COVID-19 tests in the United States strengthens our preparedness for the upcoming fall and winter seasons, reduces our reliance on other countries, and provides good jobs to hardworking Americans,” said Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, JD (above), in an HHS news release. “ASPR’s investments in these domestic manufacturers will increase availability of tests in the future.” With the federal government preparing for what it expects to be a surge in demand for COVID-19 testing, clinical laboratories may want to track the CDC’s weekly reports on the number of positive COVID-19 cases as this year’s influenza season progresses. (Photo copyright: Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.)
In Vitro Diagnostics Test Makers Get Government Gigs
This is not the first time federal officials sent out free COVID-19 tests to consumers. According to the AP, more than 755 million tests went out to US households in previous efforts to fight the spread of infections. But unlike those tests, these tests will be manufactured entirely within the US.
The government’s latest wave of free tests is meant to “complement ASPR’s ongoing distribution of free COVID-19 tests to long-term care facilities, low-income senior housing, uninsured individuals, and underserved communities, with 500 million tests provided to date through these channels,” the HHS news release noted.
Both large and lesser-known in vitro diagnostics (IVD) manufacturers were selected by the federal government to receive funding. They include:
HHS advises people to take the test at the first sign of symptoms (fever, sore throat, runny nose, others), after coming into contact someone who has COVID-19, or prior to gathering with a group, as a preventative to spread of the coronavirus.
“Even with a lot of mutations, there are a lot of spots in the virus that can be recognized by our immune system, and there are many shared mutations as well. There will be some protection from new vaccine booster as well as prior infections,” Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, Assistant Dean of Research and Associate Professor, Basic Sciences, Arkansas State University, told Verywell Health.
It’s worth noting that the common cold, influenza, SARS, and SARS-CoV-2 are all in the coronavirus family, and thus closely related with similar symptoms. It would not be a surprise that SARS-CoV-2 joins those other viruses as an endemic virus with a similar yearly cycle of infection rates.
If that happens, and no surge in infections appears that would motivate orders for the new COVID-19 at-home tests, the government may find itself with a lot of unused tests at the end of the year. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is aware of this possibility and provides a website where people can check to see if their test has an extended expiration date.
Plus, folks who are tired of the pandemic may not respond at all to the government’s insistence to prepare for possible surges in infection rates.
“Whether or not people are done with it, we know the virus is there, we know that it’s circulating. We know, if past is prologue, it’ll circulate to a higher degree and spread, and cases will go up in the fall and winter seasons,” said Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, JD, in the HHS new release. “Anticipating that that would be true again, or something similar, we want to make sure the American people have these tools.”
Clinical laboratories may want to prepare as well. Many people are not comfortable with at-home self-testing and prefer to have their local medical labs perform the tests.