GHS: 4th patient with bacterial infection linked to water dies - FOX Carolina 21

GHS: 4th patient with bacterial infection linked to water dies

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Patients exposed to infection had surgery at Greenville Memorial Hospital. (File/FOX Carolina) Patients exposed to infection had surgery at Greenville Memorial Hospital. (File/FOX Carolina)
GREENVILLE, SC (FOX Carolina) -

Greenville Health System officials announced new plans in place following an investigation into the bacterial infection that may have contributed to four patients' deaths following surgical procedures.

Hospital officials said their investigation determined that the mycobacterium abscessus organism originated in the water, though preliminary findings could not identify a specific process or piece of equipment that triggered the outbreak in 15 patients.

GHS said no new infections have occurred, but a fourth patient has died and they say it is possible the infection was a contributing factor. Two patients with the infection remain hospitalized and all 15 had "serious underlying medical conditions," according to GHS.

In response to the outbreak, GHS said they have installed bacteriologic point-of-use water filters in a hospital operating room setting in the wake of a surgical infection that affected the 15 patients.

"We now believe that surgery processes involving the use of tap water may have inadvertently brought the organism into the perioperative environment," said Robert Mobley Jr., M.D., GHS' medical director of quality. "Although we use sterile water in or near the surgical sterile field, even something as seemingly safe as pre-surgery hand washing may have contributed. At this time, we have not been able to find any single cause or process as the trigger for the outbreak, but we've taken extraordinary measures to protect our patients – and believe we've succeeded. With patient safety as our first priority, we are taking protective measures to prevent further exposure to tap water in the operative environment."

According to the hospital system, the bacterium is harmless in most cases but can lead to infections if it comes into contact with surgical sites, especially in patients with weakened immune systems. According to the Centers For Disease Control, the organism is in most tap water including water studies down at Greenville Memorial Hospital.

GHS said letters were sent, via regular and certified mail, to approximately 180 patients that specific cardiopulmonary surgical equipment was used out of an abundance of caution.

DHEC released the following statement regarding the investigation into the infection:

It is important for the public to understand that the quality of Greenville's drinking water is not at issue in this case. Contamination of a sterile field with non-sterile water during invasive procedures may result in an infection of this type. Even at high levels, ingestion of mycobacterium abscessus is not typically a risk for infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Mycobacterium abscessus is an environmental contaminant and can be found in water and dust. In the healthcare setting, exposure to M. abscessus may best be avoided by preventing non-sterile water contamination of medical equipment and supplies. Prevention efforts should focus on eliminating potential contamination of the surgical field by any form of unsterilized water, as well as assuring meticulous adherence to good general infection prevention methods.

DHEC has provided the hospital with a complete list of recommendations intended to help prevent this type of infection in the future, many of which have already been implemented.

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