The fight against infections has eternally stationed hospitals in the supreme vanguard. However, a recent study undertaken by Michigan Medicine is now demystifying prevalent assumptions concerning the spread of certain common hospital infections. Every passing year, roughly half a million Americans fall prey to the bacteria Clostridioides difficile, colloquially known as C. diff. Hospitals have an arsenal of protective measures ranging from thorough hand sanitation practices to designated isolation rooms at their disposal to impede these infections. The revelatory research featured in the scientific journal Nature Medicine suggests that contrary to prior belief the primary cause of these hospital-acquired infections may not be hospital transmission, rather, it could be directly linked to the unique characteristics of each patient.
This innovative study, a synergistic collaboration between Dr. Evan Snitkin, Dr. Vincent Young from the University of Michigan Medical School, and Dr. Mary Hayden of Rush University Medical Center, relied on the analysis of data garnered from studies focusing on hospital-borne infections. The meticulously structured study facilitated the close monitoring of every patient inhabiting Rush University Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) over a period of nine months. During this period, daily fecal samples were collected from each patient.
From within the observations of the 1,100 patients, study co-participant Arianna Miles-Jay detected that just slightly above 9% were harboring C. diff. However, upon obtaining the genomic sequences of these strains and subsequent comparison, a startling pattern surfaced: contrary to previously held beliefs, these infections weren’t being transmitted from one patient to another within the hospital environment at the presupposed rate. Remarkably, only six instances of genomically-supported transmissions were identified through the entire length of the study. This fact underscores that the overwhelming majority of C. diff infections did not originate either from the hospital milieu or from fellow patients.
Additional probes are needed to discover the unseen factors that cause C. diff in humans to transition from a dormant gut-state to an aggressive infection. Dr. Snitkin articulated the team’s astonishment at this elusive triggering mechanism, explaining that the systematic culture of every patient was expected to provide insights into how the disease’s transmission was happening, yet the genomic evidence revealed scant transmission. There remain inexplicable patient conditions that trigger the C. diff bacteria from a dormant state to an infection causing diarrhea and other complications.
Notwithstanding these findings, the significance of current hospital infection prevention protocols remains vital. Dr. Hayden stressed the importance of the rigorous precautions undertaken in Rush ICU, which most likely, reduced the in-hospital transmission of the disease. In tandem, the study underscores the need for devising additional protective measures, particularly for identifying risk-posing patients and ensuring their optimal safety.
As Dr. Young explains, the pervasiveness of C. diff is more than we might initially believe. Their ability to produce spores allows them to resist environmental stressors including exposure to oxygen and dehydration. An interesting fact being, these spores remain unaffected by alcohol-based sanitizers. Despite its ubiquity, only about 5% of the population in a non-healthcare setting accommodates C. diff in their gut, typically registering no problems at all. Thus, the challenge, as per Dr. Young, lies in identifying the ways in which common medical practices like antibiotics or tube feedings might inadvertently act as triggers for a C. diff infection.
Emphasizing a paradigm shift in the approach, research is now focusing on how to distinguish these medical practices that could inadvertently activate C. diff infections. The team plans to utilize artificial intelligence to predict patients at the highest risk. Subsequently, they aim to redirect resources to develop more nuanced infection prevention strategies, optimize medical proceedings, and identify potential triggers.
The efforts reposition the focus from merely preventing the spread of infections to optimizing the use of antibiotics and identifying other triggers leading to serious infections in patients who are potential carriers of pathogens like C. diff, as per Dr. Snitkin. Through these efforts, it is hoped that the battle against healthcare-associated infections will be won.