The Mölnlycke O.R. blog
Scientific miscommunication: Selective reporting and hand hygiene
This is the third and final article in a series of posts about scientific miscommunication. This time we look at selective reporting. Case in point: media coverage of rising MRSA rates without equal coverage for the flip side of the issue.
As was touched upon in part one of this blog series: antibiotics do not work against viruses. The same can be said about antiseptics: they do not work against some types of virus that spread from surface to surface and patient to patient through hand contact. Norovirus is a great example of a non-enveloped virus (famously responsible for sickness and diarrhoea aboard cruise ships) that is not killed by antiseptic handwashes due to its hard outer shell. Even so, its virulence (chance of infecting another individual) IS significantly reduced by the mechanical action of washing your hands thoroughly after touching raw food or contaminated surfaces.
The point here is that we can read extensive media reporting about rising MRSA (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) rates, and the accompanying caution and sometimes panic about how MRSA can be combated if antibiotics stop working. And while the media do report the importance of hand hygiene in conjunction with antibiotic-scare stories, hand hygiene is never leading the story, nor are the positives when hospitals successfully decrease their MRSA rates and meet previously unthinkable targets.
It’s long been a case of selective or limited reporting – perhaps until now.
As discussed in parts one and two of this blog series, the current Ebola outbreak in Africa may be the epidemic that makes a headline out of hand washing.
Ebola is caused by a highly virulent enveloped virus (no hard shell, just a membranous envelope), meaning that it responds to hand washing, including antiseptic handwashes. Given the almost complete lack of curative treatment and nearly always fatal conclusion to Ebola, there is no other option – or media story – than to push prevention. In the case of Ebola, which has justifiably raised the alarm globally, healthcare workers in addition to average people, have been exposed to the virus, whether because of the lack of personal protection equipment or, more likely, improper application of infection prevention and control measures – including the very basic but critical hand hygiene.
The Ebola crisis puts into relief the general reluctance to push and police hand hygiene, even in hospitals. Despite significantly reducing the risk of viruses and bacteria transferring from one patient to another and offering protection to patient and caregiver, and despite hand washing being a part of global healthcare training programmes, including the WHO basic “Five Moments of Hand Hygiene” course, compliance has long been an issue. Such an issue, in fact, that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) felt the need to publish guidelines on how to overcome these challenges. But why, knowing what we know, is compliance so difficult to achieve? And can a crisis and virus like Ebola start to scare people into compliance?