The Pennsylvania Department of Health has awarded the university a $4.7 million, four-year grant from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to study the spread and control of hospital-acquired infections.
Dr. Lee Harrison, the principal investigator of the grant and a university professor of medicine and epidemiology, said research will focus on C. difficile, A. baumannii and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, all of which are infections commonly spread in hospital settings.
Such infections have genetic mechanisms that make them resistant to antibiotic treatments, forcing more powerful antibiotics, and in some cases making antibiotics ineffective, he said.
Patients with hospital-acquired, drug-resistant infections are hospitalized three times longer than noninfected patients and at four times the cost.
The university will assess the medical and economic impacts of strategies it develops in preventing hospital-acquired infections, which were diagnosed in 27,000 patients statewide in 2007.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said 1.7 million health care-associated infections are reported annually among patients, with 32 percent occurring in the urinary tract, 22 percent in surgical sites, 15 percent as pneumonias and 14 percent in the bloodstream. Hospitals, it noted, have had success in reducing bloodstream infections in recent years, although it represents one of few successes in the field.
"Infections that are resistant to antibiotics are becoming increasingly problematic not only in the United States, but around the world," Dr. Harrison said. "We not only need to develop new drugs, but also to improve infection surveillance and focus on targeted interventions."
None of the grant money will be used to develop new antibiotics.
Dr. Harrison said hospitals already isolate patients with troublesome infections and require health care personnel to wear masks and gowns that are disposed of afterward. They also must wash hands after each treatment. Doctors also assign a stethoscope to an infected patient so other patients cannot be infected by such instruments.
One focus of study will be patients who show no symptoms of C. difficile, yet are carriers. Dr. Harrison said it might be necessary to test and isolate such patients.
"It's one of a portfolio of different projects to help control this serious problem," he said.
With grant money, the university also will establish a Center of Excellence and Prevention and Control of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacterial Infections in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, various University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospitals and the Kane Regional Centers of Allegheny County.
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