Skip to main content.

Sharing information key to fighting deadly infection outbreaks

Fellowship Story Showcase

Sharing information key to fighting deadly infection outbreaks

Picture of Jenna Chandler

Jenna Chandler is a health reporter at the Orange County Register, where she has also covered breaking news, education and transportation. This story was produced as a project for The California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

How hospitals fail to prevent infections

Federal inspection report finds Orange County hospital in crisis

Deadly and hidden mistakes: Hospital error reports often elude the public

UC Irvine researcher Dr. Susan Huang
For the CDC study, UC Irvine researcher Dr. Susan Huang and her team collected data on admissions, length of stay, diagnosis and transfer locations from 102 health care facilities in Orange County.
The Orange County Register
Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hospitals and nursing homes tend to work independently to prevent outbreaks of deadly superbugs, rarely communicating with each other when transferring patients who might be carrying the antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

But if they worked together, they could significantly limit the number of people who get sick.

They could, for example, keep nearly 20,000 people in Orange County from falling ill over a 15-year period from a bacteria known commonly as CRE, a team of UC Irvine researchers working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found.

Better coordination among hospitals and other health care facilities – which often care for the same patients – could prevent more than 600,000 infections and save 37,000 lives over five years nationwide, according to the CDC report released Tuesday.

The CRE bacteria and other superbugs can’t be killed with standard antibiotics. They can cause pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis and other serious infections and are some of the most deadly, causing at least 2 million illnesses and killing at least 23,000 people yearly in the U.S.

They are commonly picked up in hospitals from contaminated surfaces and such medical devices as catheters and ventilators, and can easily spread among patients.

“No one facility can stop this, because outbreaks move across facilities,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. “Facilities that go at it alone can’t protect their patients.”

The CDC’s study models were based in part on work done by UC Irvine researcher Dr. Susan Huang. Her team collected data on admissions, length of stay, diagnosis and transfer locations from 102 health care facilities, including 22 hospitals, in Orange County.

If hospitals work independently, as they do now, 31,885 people would contract CRE over 15 years in Orange County, compared with 12,614 if they worked together, according to the CDC report.

The CDC recommends hospitals and other facilities create alert systems to notify one another when transferring patients with antibiotic-resistant germs, as well as clostridium difficile, a pathogen not resistant to antibiotics. However, antibiotics destroy the good germs that fight off the bad ones, including C. diff, putting patients at high risk for deadly diarrhea.

Orange County is already working to improve hospital-to-hospital communication about C. diff infections as part of a pilot project with the California Department of Public Health, said Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of epidemiology with the Orange County Public Health Agency.

Huang said she’s applying for grants to set up an Orange County hub to share common prevention protocols, training, data-sharing and monitoring for all superbugs.

It has taken a while to build a network, she said, because of a lack of funds. There have been other roadblocks, too, she said, like building rapport and getting hospitals to agree on shared priorities.

“We are really one big region that shares” common diseases, Huang said. “Getting public health and all the facilities to work together is a really, really good idea.

“I’m really pleased to see CDC put a spotlight on this.”

Contact the writer:, @jennakchandler on Twitter

[This story was originally published by The Orange County Register.]

[Photo by Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register.]