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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Hospital Infections Kill 48,000 Each Year

Study Shows Hospital-Acquired Infections Kill 3 Times as Many Americans as HIV
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 22, 2010 - Every year, 48,000 Americans die of infections they caught while in the hospital -- and that's a conservative estimate, a new study finds.

These aren't infections people would have caught anyway. They are mistakes that cost lives, says study researcher Ramanan Laxminarayan, PhD, MPH, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C. think tank Resources for the Future.

"It is a staggering number and one that does not have to be," Laxminarayan tells WebMD. "When a patient goes to the hospital for another illness and dies of pneumonia, it does not always occur to the family that it was a mistake. But if that same patient went to the hospital and got blood tainted with HIV, the response would be quite different."

Hospital acquired infections actually kill three times more Americans than HIV does. Yet we're only beginning to get a handle on the size of the problem. That's because it's been very hard to separate out the costs -- in terms of lives, suffering, and money -- from the suffering caused by the illnesses and injuries that land people in the hospital in the first place.

Laxminarayan and colleagues analyzed administrative data from a huge national database of information on hospital records for 69 million U.S. residents in 40 states between 1998 and 2006. They focused only on infections acquired in the hospital, and not on infections picked up in the community.

Most of the infections come from using catheters and ventilators. Some of the germs causing the infections have been around for years; others are scary new bugs such as the MRSA staph "superbug."

Johns Hopkins researcher Peter J. Pronovost, MD, PhD, is a world expert on hospital-acquired infections. He tells WebMD that the Laxminarayan study finally gives hard numbers to a problem that has vexed hospitals for decades.

"These deaths are invisible. The public doesn't know. They are happening one at a time, silently, and patients think they are inevitable," Pronovost tells WebMD. "But we know from our large patient studies this is not the case."

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