Share Your Hospital Infection Story
Enterococcus are bacteria that live in the digestive and genital tracts. They are normally benign and don't cause any problems in healthy people.
Vancomycin is a powerful antibiotic that is often the antibiotic of last resort. It is generally limited to use against bacteria that are already resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics.
Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococcus is a mutant strain of Enterococcus that originally developed in individuals who were exposed to the antibiotic. It was first identified in Europe in 1986, and in the U.S. in 1988.
VRE is dangerous because it cannot be controlled with antibiotics, and it causes life-threatening infections in people with compromised immune systems - the very young, the very old, and the very ill.
It is especially dangerous because it can easily transmit the resistance genes to other, more dangerous bacteria, such as staph and strep. Two cases of vancomycin-resistant staph have been identified in the U.S. in the last two months. These could cause serious infections even in otherwise healthy people.
The spread of VRE isn't thoroughly documented or understood, but estimates from Europe are that 3.5% to 5% of the population may be carriers of VRE. VRE first appeared in the U.S. on the East Coast and spread to the West Coast. It is likely that carrier rates in those areas will take a couple of years to catch up to the European carrier rates.
It's particular important to avoid becoming a carrier if you share a home with those at risk - the very young, the very old or the very ill.
In Hospitals - The most likely place to pick up VRE is in hospitals, since this is where VRE tends to originate. In the U.S., all reported cases of VRE were acquired in a hospital. (This is according to the information currently publicly available - this information changes rapidly.)
VRE has been cultured from hospital equipment, doorknobs, and bedrails. It has also been cultured on the hands of hospital personnel. Anyone who frequents hospitals should be considered at risk for carrying VRE.
Of course, you can be exposed to VRE by a single visit to the hospital, but people who work in hospitals (even administrative personnel) are at much higher risk for being exposed and becoming a carrier.
Note that the most likely place to pick up VRE is probably the door handle of the rest room. Consider using the towel you dried your hands with as a protective shield when you open the door.
Avoid hospitals, as this is the only documented source of VRE in the U.S. If you do go to a hospital to visit someone, maintain fastidious hygiene throughout your visit. Avoid eating while at the hospital, and especially avoid eating hospital food.
In general, avoid taking antibiotics. You don't want to become a breeding ground for an antibiotic-resistant infection.
If a hospital stay is absolutely necessary, it is probably wise to ask thorough questions about the hospital infection situation. Request written information about the hospital's record regarding VRE - how many infections have there been? When was the most recent infection? How many people were infected? How often are hospital personnel tested for VRE carrier status? How many staff are known to be VRE carriers?
It's best to request that this information be provided in written form, and dated and signed by your caregiver. This way your caregiver will know that you are serious about getting accurate information.
Consider asking all the hospitals in your area. You may be surprised at the variance of infection rates. In particular, university and teaching hospitals have much higher rates of infection than community hospitals, and it may be possible to arrange to stay at the hospital with the lower infection rate.
As a patient in a hospital, you have to decide how paranoid you want to be about the possibility of exposure to VRE. It's probably safest to avoid eating any raw vegetables from the hospital kitchen. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating, and avoid eating any foods with your hands.
It's certainly safest to have anyone who touches you put on sterile gloves first, but this is unlikely to be their standard procedure.
Request a copy of their guidelines for avoiding hospital-acquired infections, and remind hospital personnel to abide by those guidelines.
If the hospital has a history of VRE, consider the possibility that you might have been exposed during your stay, and you might now be a carrier.
Those who are VRE carriers are unlikely to know it. It is possible to be cultured to find out if you are a VRE carrier, but this is unlikely to be covered by a health plan.
If you think there's a possibility that you were exposed to VRE and might be a carrier, you should maintain fastidious hygiene in order to avoid spreading the bacteria. It is important to wash your hands for twenty seconds with an antibacterial soap every time after using the toilet. This will reduce the chance that you will spread VRE to others with whom you come in contact. Be especially fastidious if you are regularly in contact with those at risk - the very young, the very old, or the very ill.
If you are certain that you were exposed to VRE or suspect that you
may have become a carrier, it is essential to maintain your own good health
in order to avoid developing a serious infection.
VRE is not generally dangerous to healthy individuals with fully functioning immune systems. However, it is very dangerous to newborn babies because they have an immature immune system that cannot cope with many different types of germs.
In the U.S., most women give birth in hospitals. Unfortunately, the emergence of VRE as an increasingly common pathogen can make the hospital a very dangerous place for your baby. Hospitals have always recommended that newborns be kept away from hospitals because of the increased danger to their immature immune systems. This danger becomes even more serious when the hospital germs cannot be treated with antibiotics.
The Center for Disease Control warns that the primary concern about VRE is that it could easily share its resistance with staph bacteria, which can easily infect a baby's skin. Two strains of staph resistant to vancomycin were reported in the U.S. in the summer of 1997, and it is expected that this number will increase rapidly.
The first is that your baby may be exposed to VRE or resistant staph through contact with hospital equipment or personnel.
The second is that you may become a VRE carrier and take the bacteria to your home, where you may spread it to other family members, including your new baby. Your own body might become an incubator for resistant strep or staph, which could cause serious infection in your baby.
Germs introduced vaginally are particularly dangerous because if they migrate to the placenta site, they can move directly into the larger vessels in the mother's bloodstream and cause systemic infection quite rapidly.
Birth Centers - Birth Centers are different from hospitals in that they are much less likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant germs. This is because Birth Center clients aren't typically taking antibiotics. However, as a public place, birth centers do have a lot of people passing through, which increases the risk of introduction of antibiotic-resistant germs in the environment. In particular, if the birth center personnel also work in hospitals, there is an increased risk that they may be carriers of antibiotic-resistant germs.
At home - The best way to protect your baby from dangerous germs is to give birth at home. It's very unlikely that VRE is present in your home, unless you or someone else in your family became a carrier through previous exposure to VRE. In addition, a baby born at home is always kept very close to the mother, thereby ensuring that the mother is exposed to the same germs the baby is exposed to. This allows the mother's body to customize the antibodies in her breastmilk to be exactly the ones her baby needs.
If your pregnancy is complicated by high-risk factors that limit your out-of-hospital options, you can still make choices that minimize your exposure to hospital germs:
Minimize Interventions - Any intervention that causes a break in your skin could result in a serious infection. Avoid these risks by declining unnecessary IVs or injections.
Avoid an Epidural - Epidurals are especially dangerous because a pathway for germs is created from the outside directly into your spinal space; a spinal is even more dangerous, as it could introduce germs into your spinal column and cause meningitis. In addition, 15% of women who have an epidural develop an epidural fever. This usually necessitates the baby's being admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for a number of tests and observations. The most dangerous infections are generally found in the NICU. For information about the baby's experience of pain in the NICU, see the section on Pain of Neonatal Intensive Care in this Paper on Infant Pain by David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.
Avoid Being Catheterized - Urinary tract infections are the most commonly acquired infections in hospitals; they are usually caused by catheterization.
Avoid Ingesting VRE - Eat only cooked hospital food, and wash your hands thoroughly before eating.
Breastfeed Your Baby - By breastfeeding your baby, you protect your baby in a number of ways. You minimize the number of times the baby is handled by hospital staff, and you prevent the introduction of VRE through bottle equipment or formula. In addition, your breastmilk provides antibodies that protect your baby against infection. Even if your baby is primarily fed artificial human milk (formula), occasional breastfeeding can still offer a significant immunity boost to your baby. This is especially important while you are in the hospital. Once you are away from the hospital, continue to breastfeed as much as possible. Babies who do not receive the immune boost from breastmilk are ten times more likely to develop an infection that requires hospitalization.
Wash Your Hands Fastidiously Before Breastfeeding so that your baby doesn't ingest germs along with the breastmilk. This will also reduce the risk of mastitis and other breast infections in cracked nipples.
Avoid Procedures that Break the Baby's Skin - One quarter of newborns in hospitals acquire a staph infection. Every injection or heelstick breaks the baby's skin and can become an avenue for serious infection. Although the vitamin K shot is best given close to the time of birth, other breaks in the skin can sensibly be delayed. (Some progressive hospitals are offering oral vitamin K, which doesn't require breaking the baby's skin; you can request vitamin K.) In particular, vaccines can often be delayed for some months, and the newborn screen (PKU heelstick) can be done by a health care provider after the baby is safe at home. (In any case, the PKU is most accurate when done at six days; newborn screens performed before the baby is a couple of days old miss 10-15% of cases of hypothyroidism. It is also significantly less traumatic to do a heelstick on a six-day-old baby than a day-old baby since newborns are often dehydrated in the first couple of days. The task of "getting blood from a stone" requires significant and repeated stabbing of the baby's heel.) If you are unable to find a CNM, Licensed Midwife or pediatrician who makes housecalls to do the newborn screen heelstick at 6 days, it is still safer to have the PKU heelstick done in the pediatrician's office than in the hospital.
If someone comes in your room already wearing gloves, make them take them off, wash their hands and reapply.
Minimize Handling of Your Baby by Hospital Personnel - Insist that the staff maintain fastidious hygiene and handle your baby only with fresh, clean gloves. One way to ensure that the staff doesn't touch the baby with bare hands is to decline to have the baby bathed after the birth. You might choose to do a little spot cleaning here and there, but if the baby is not bathed, then the staff will be careful about handling the baby for their own protection. In addition, this will protect the baby from the germs found in the bath water.
Keep Your Baby in Your Room - This reduces handling of your baby by hospital staff, and ensures that your body will produce the antibodies to the germs your baby is exposed to. The World Health Organization's discussion of Umbilical Cord Care offers clear advice about keeping your baby in your room in order to minimize infection.
Return Home as Soon as Possible - Leaving the hospital as soon as possible after the birth will reduce your chance of acquiring a hospital infection or being exposed to antibiotic-resistant germs. In California, the law to reduce so-called "drive-through deliveries" requires HMOs and health insurers to cover at least a 48-hour hospital stay for a mother and newborn or to provide for a follow-up exam within two days after discharge. Astute consumers can use this law to negotiate for care to be provided in their home. You can arrange for an in-home visit by a Licensed Midwife and a week of household help for less money than it costs for a single day in the hospital. This will allow you to recover in the comfort and safety of your own home, surrounded by the people of your choice, while providing access to the health care and practical help you may need.
Avoid Returning to the Hospital or a Doctor's Office Where Your Child
Can Be Exposed to Nasty Germs - Once you've successfully brought a
health baby home from the hospital, it's important to remember that hospitals
and medical offices filled with sick children continue to be a threat to
your child. A child's immune system doesn't develop completely until
around 5 years of age. It's important to minimize your child's exposure
to other sick children, especially the very sick children in a doctor's
office. Develop a good relationship with the phone nurse, instead,
and develop skills at caring for minor problems at home.
Many families find it much easier to achieve these goals with the help of a private labor assistant dedicated to meeting their needs.
You can find professional labor assistants by looking in the Yellow Pages or calling your local midwives or childbirth educators. There are some national organizations that maintain a referral service: ALACE (Association of Labor Assistants & Childbirth Educators), and DONA (Doulas of North America).
Trained labor assistants offer advocacy for your birth plan and provide the hands-on help that will help you fulfill your plans. Benefits include:
For more information about:
Recent News Reports about VRE, Hospital-Acquired Infections and Antibiotic-Resistant Infections
References for VRE, Antibiotic Resistance and Hospital-Acquired Infections
(VRE)Questions and Answers for Home Care
The Newborn Immune System and Immunological Benefits of Breastmilk - extracts from textbooks
The wonders of human breastmilk - written for parents
Breastfeeding's Immunological Benefits - breastfeeding kept an immuno-compromised baby alive for 18 months.
Homebirth - Safety and Benefits
These web pages were originally composed by Ronnie
Falcao, LM MS, in Sept., 1997.
They have been updated as new information has become available.
Permission to link to these pages is hereby granted.
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and Untreatable Infections
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Homebirth Safety And Benefits
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