Superbugs – a Hospital-Bred Threat

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    Antibiotic-resistant bacteria raise deadly crisis management questions

    There is no arguing the fact that modern medicine is saving lives every day. Unfortunately, there is also a downside. By making the use of certain medications, specifically antibiotics, extremely prevalent, we are creating new and deadly “superbugs” that threaten to wreak havoc on unsuspecting hospital patients.

    Think we’re exaggerating? You won’t after you read this quote discussing the intense measures taken by staff at a National Institute of Health Clinical Center in 2011, from a Washington Post article by Brian Vastag:

    As a deadly infection, untreatable by nearly every antibiotic, spread through the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center last year, the staff resorted to extreme measures. They built a wall to isolate patients, gassed rooms with vaporized disinfectant and even ripped out plumbing. They eventually used rectal swabs to test every patient in the 234-bed hospital.

    Still, for six months, as physicians fought to save the infected, the bacteria spread, eventually reaching 17 gravely ill patients. Eleven died, six from bloodstream superbug infections.

    What’s even more frightening is the fact that the NIH kept the outbreak under wraps for nearly a year, finally releasing not an apology, but a scientific paper detailing the methods used to track the movement of the superbug Klebisella pneumoniae. Apparently, CDC rules do not require mandated reports on this particular bug, and the NIH chose to throw its moral obligations out the window and stay mum.

    This outbreak was certainly not the only one of its kind. Hospitals across the country have been encountering strains of bacteria that simply do not respond to antibiotics for more than a decade. Reality is, a threat of this measure is something that simply cannot be managed properly without prior crisis management planning covering both operational and communications response. Every medical facility, be it hospital, nursing home, or pediatrician’s office, absolutely must prepare for a superbug outbreak. Because of the often large number of employees and numerous complex procedures already in place, this is a crisis that begs to be simulated and have its response practiced regularly and thoroughly. Lives, quite literally, hang in the balance.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training, and co-host of The Crisis Show. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]