© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
88.5 FM KMST Rolla is currently experiencing technical difficulties.

Simple remedies can shield ICU patients from deadly infections

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2013: In an era of increasingly high-tech medical care, some potentially deadly health problems turn out to respond best to low-tech remedies.

Case in point is the ongoing federal effort to encourage hospitals and other providers to protect patients from potentially deadly infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Research by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and several other institutions has found that a combination of soap and ointment is an effective prophylactic. Bathing patients in the intensive care unit with a germ-killing soap and applying an antibiotic ointment to their nostrils reduced infections by up to 44 percent. The treatment sharply cut the incidence of a type of staph bacteria called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, researchers said.

The findings, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine,  could bolster federal efforts to crack down on deadly health-care acquired infections. Researchers say their findings are important because MRSA not only increases health costs but it is a significant cause of illness and sometimes death among patients.

Other researchers in the project came from the University of California at Irvine, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Hospital Corporation of America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Helping to design and oversee the study was Dr. Victoria J. Fraser, head of the Department of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. She said in a statement that the “risks of acquiring health-care associated infections and multidrug resistant organisms among critically ill patients remain a significant challenge. This study demonstrates new and cost-effective methods to protect patients and improve outcomes in ICUs.”

Fraser was a logical choice for designing the study since Washington University had done previous research involving the use of  soap and ointment for some ICU patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The national research took place between 2009-2011, covering 74 adult ICUs and 74,256 patients.

Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says his agency's support for the project was important because “we need to turn science into practical action for clinicians and hospitals. CDC is working to determine how the findings should inform CDC infection prevention recommendations.”

Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy, director of the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, added that “patients in the ICU are already very sick, and the last thing they need to deal with is a preventable infection. This research has the potential to influence clinical practice significantly and create a safer environment where patients can heal without harm.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.