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October 16, 2007 > Infection Control Week:

Infection Control Week:

Common-Sense Precautions Reduce Infection Risks

Since 1986, the third week of October has been designated National Infection Control Week in an effort to promote awareness about the importance of reducing the risk of infections. The theme of year's observation, from October 14 to 20, is "Infection Prevention - It's in Your Hands," stressing the role each of us plays in controlling the spread of infectious diseases.

"Here at Washington Hospital, we are very concerned about the spread of bacterial and viral infections," says Dr. Eva Quiroz, an infectious disease specialist who works at the hospital. "Health care workers play an important role in preventing infections, and we have decreased the rate of infections here by following the guidelines of the '100,000 Lives Campaign' for preventing IV line infections and surgical site infections."

Launched by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), the "100,000 Lives Campaign" is a nationwide initiative to improve quality standards for patient care. Thousands of participating hospitals, including Washington Hospital, have adopted the campaign's guidelines, ensuring positive outcomes for many more patients.

But health care workers are not the only ones responsible for preventing infections. "All of us need to be aware of the things we do that can spread disease," Dr. Quiroz says. "For example, people should realize the risks they take when they bring young children to visit someone at the hospital. Young children are more susceptible to infections, so you should avoid having your children come in contact with people who are really sick. Also, kids can become 'carriers' of infections and pass them along to other children in school or day care or to other members of the family."

Dr. Quiroz notes that the incidence of drug-resistant bacterial infections is growing rapidly in the population. "People often press their doctors to prescribe antibiotics to treat any infection - whether it's viral or bacterial," she explains. "But antibiotics work only on bacteria, not on viruses such as the flu virus. Continued misuse of antibiotics has resulted in strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment with antibiotics."

One such infection is Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This bacteria, which is commonly found on the skin, sometimes becomes strong enough to resist being killed by Methicillin, penicillin and other antibiotics.

"Outbreaks of MRSA can be caused by any activity that causes a break in the skin," she explains. "That's why MRSA infections are being seen more frequently in contact sports such as wrestling, where the athletes get the infection through cuts and scratches. Because this bacteria is very common in the community, people must be very careful in treating any wound, keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a sterile dressing."

Stopping the spread of infections involves following some common-sense precautions. "The first three rules of infection prevention are wash your hands, wash your hands, and wash your hands," Dr. Quiroz emphasizes. "You need to wash frequently with soap and clean running water, especially if you come in contact with people who are sick. If you don't have access to soap and water, you can use alcohol-based gels or antibacterial wipes that are readily available in grocery and drug stores."

Other simple precautions for preventing the spread of infections include:
* Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough.
* Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, which are "entry portals" for viruses and bacteria.
* Don't go to work or school if you have symptoms of the flu or other contagious illness, such as fever, cough and muscle aches.
* Get an annual flu shot to prevent getting influenza. Since flu viruses mutate quickly, a new shot is produced each year. Last year's vaccine won't protect you from this year's prevalent flu viruses.
* Do not share your towels, beverage containers, eating utensils or other personal items with other people.
* Eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly.

Any person who has an infectious disease is capable of spreading it other people. "Years ago, I worked for the Centers for Disease Control, investigating outbreaks of disease," Dr. Quiroz recalls. "At one college, in the midst of finals, over 200 students became seriously ill, with 17 of them requiring IVs. We eventually traced that outbreak to one food handler in the cafeteria who was infected by a parasite. Just one person's actions in neglecting proper hand-washing hygiene caused a serious outbreak.

"Infection prevention is not about being paranoid, it's about being aware and conscientious, doing your part to prevent the spread of disease," she adds.

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