While most of us probably know of someone who has had an infection following an operation, you may not realize the significance of airborne mold spores. Fungal growth actually presents a difficult and often expensive dilemma for medical facilities. Perhaps more important than the structural damage caused by mold is the danger of health care-associated infections (HAIs).
The CDC estimates that HAIs are a rapidly growing concern that affect two million Americans and cause about 100,000 deaths each year. This number is expected to increase over the next several years due to four main factors: 1) hospitals are building additions onto their existing structure to accommodate more patients and dust from demolition activities contains high levels of mold spores; 2) doctors and patient families are willing to try keeping the patient alive longer through risky organ transplants and other medical procedures that require deactivating the immune system; 3) the number of small, privately-owned surgical centers is rising. Many of these facilities do not have the resources to properly manage airborne contaminants, and 4) in an effort to keep costs down, insurance companies require shorter hospital stays, placing the patient at risk for an infection that may not become apparent until it is too late to treat with success.
The resulting disease resulting from exposure to mold in a health facility is largely dependent on the individual response. Healthy hospital staff may become sensitized to mold, but there is only a small risk of infection in healthy people. Mold exposure can be life-threatening, however, for patients who are immunosuppressed. The crude mortality rate from fungal infections exceeds 50 percent in the latter group, which is comprised of a large percentage of hospital patients.
What Can Hospitals Do?
As fungal infections can be difficult to diagnose, prevention is key in reducing exposure to pathogenic fungi such as Aspergillus. Keeping construction areas tightly sealed-off from patient areas, preventing the transfer of unfiltered air through ventilation systems, and properly maintaining HEPA filters and other HVCA components will help keep fungal spores from dust & soil from entering areas not under construction. It is important to note that common areas such as cafeterias, break rooms and hallways need to be sealed to the same level as patient rooms as mold spores can be blown or carried from common areas into patient areas.
Since fungal spores and fine dust can remain suspended in air for hours, it is important to assess the air quality before, during and at the end of a renovation project. In a hospital-like setting, baseline data are very important should an outbreak occur during or after a project.
What Can Patients Do?
Larger hospitals tend to understand the risk and are more prepared to deal with prevention and treating an HAI. The smaller the hospital, the greater the risk, therefore, check out all your options prior to choosing a hospital for your surgery. It is best to avoid using a surgical center that is not located in a hospital.
No matter which hospital you choose, ask for the administration to provide and discuss their policies for preventing HAIs. Even if you do not see a construction site at the building, everyday activities and common water leaks generate mold-containing dust particles that cause infection.
Health-care associated infections are a major health issue that result in nearly 100,000 unnecessary deaths each year and add considerable cost to health care. Making prevention a priority is sure to make a difference.