Many residents in the Upstate are trying to learn more about an outbreak of surgical infections at Greenville Memorial Hospital which may have caused the deaths of four patients and sickened 11 more.
Last month, Greenville Health System officials revealed the 15 afflicted patients had been infected by mycobacterium abscessus following surgeries this spring. Investigators believe the bacteria somehow contaminated a hospital operating room through the use of tap water. But the preliminary investigation results released on Monday stated that officials were not certain exactly how the tap water’s use caused the infection. Monday’s announcement stated that the hospital was now using sterile water in its operating rooms.
Mycobacteria are naturally occurring and are normally not dangerous, according to Medical University of South Carolina microbiology and immunology professor Dr. Michael Schmidt. That’s because the body’s immune system can handle any such bacteria that enter through the mouth or nose.
However, Schmidt said the body is not as well-equipped to handle any mycobacteria that enter the body through unusual means like surgical wounds. “If that microbe happens to fall into us, it’s no longer in our stomach which has a tremendous amount of acid that inactivates these creatures,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “Once it gets into our sterile body cavity, it can cause disease.”
He said it’s more likely to cause problems for hospital patients, who are already ill and more likely to have weakened immune systems.
Since this bacteria species is not dangerous when swallowed, water utilities and state health officials do not test for it. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said this week that Greenville’s drinking water quality is not at issue.
Those views were seconded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “For most individuals out there, it’s not a problem,” CDC public health microbiologist Dr. Michael Arduino told WYFF on Wednesday. “It’s not a health risk for the majority of people. It only becomes a risk when the organism amplifies, which tends to happen in large buildings; hospitals, apartments, other sorts of clinics.”
However, DHEC recommended that Greenville Memorial put more safeguards in place for reusing water, including new bacteriologic filters and point of use filters at the sinks.
Schmidt said he expects DHEC to also recommend that all hospitals begin testing their water for the mycobacterium at least once per month.
“DHEC may ask hospitals to routinely test their water supply to assess whether or not the hospitals in South Carolina are at risk for other outbreaks of mycobacterium abscessus,” he said. “To determine whether or not Greenville just was a fluke, or whether or not this is quite common.”