Guarding against MERS

This month, the first two known cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, were reported in the United States. In case you haven’t been following the news, MERS is a worrisome new infection that first emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Since then, MERS has expanded to six countries in Southwest Asia — although individual cases have also occurred in Europe and Malaysia. MERS is part of a family of infectious organisms known as coronaviruses. It causes severe respiratory illness, with no known effective treatment.

With growing frequency, public health experts are sounding the alarm on another new disease threat. What’s interesting about MERS is that many of the victims are health workers — including both U.S. cases. Both of these individuals treated patients in Saudi Arabia and then traveled to the U.S.

At University Health System, like all high performing health care organizations, we recognize that caring for sick patients carries risks. We understand and accept those risks as part of our job, and yet do everything we can to protect our patients, ourselves and our families.

We have teams of professionals and evidence-based protocols dedicated to preventing the spread of infections in our hospital buildings and our clinics. Some of those methods are simple but incredibly important, such as making sure everyone practices good hand hygiene. That’s also a good strategy for everyone, at home and at work, to keep from getting sick.

Other strategies involve the use of innovative technology, such as our new Xenex room disinfection devices that use powerful xenon ultraviolet light to kill a broad range of infectious organisms in patient rooms, clinics, and critical-care areas.

As an academic medical center dedicated to helping find new and better treatments, we recently took part in an important national study looking at mandatory gown and glove use in our ICUs as a way to prevent infections. Our own results were so positive we made the practice standard of care for our MICU.

Nevertheless, it is a constant battle, against an ever-changing enemy — as MERS and other emerging infections demonstrate. We are closely following the latest recommendations, adopting the appropriate treatments and protocols, and changing our tactics as needed to keep our patients and ourselves safe and healthy.

Dr. Bryan Alsip is executive vice president and chief medical officer of University Health System