A visitor to the neonatal intensive care unit at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is believed to have brought in the antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria that spread to six babies and six staff members, a hospital official said Tuesday.
The hospital began testing the NICU infants and staff Thursday afternoon after someone came forward and “gave us reason to initiate the testing,” said Diane Hupp, the hospital’s chief nursing officer.
She declined to explain further.
None of the infants who tested positive for the bacteria — called MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus — has shown symptoms of infection, Hupp said.
Hospital officials on Monday announced that six infants in the neonatal intensive care unit and six hospital employees tested positive for MRSA, a type of staph bacteria that’s resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections.
“All of the babies are stable, and none of those babies are demonstrating signs or symptoms of any type of infection,” Hupp said.
One infant was being treated out of an abundance of caution, she said.
One-third of people carry staph bacteria in their nose or on their skin, and about 2 in 100 will have MRSA without showing symptoms, said Dr. Kristen Mertz of the Allegheny County Health Department.
“Occasionally, you go on to develop infection,” she said.
In this instance, the infants tested positive for the bacteria, called colonization, but they do not have any classic signs of infection.
A skin infection is the most common type of infection caused by MRSA, Mertz said. That generally presents as a red, tender area on the skin that eventually develops pus coming out of it, she said.
Most neonatal units test infants for MRSA when they come into the unit.
“A percentage of them are positive when they come in, so there’s almost always babies who are colonized with MRSA in the NICU,” she said. “The challenge is to keep it from spreading to other infants and to prevent it from becoming an active infection.”
Infants in the neonatal unit who might already have compromised health are particularly susceptible to infection, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease physician.
“Anytime there is an outbreak or a cluster of infections involving neonates, the concern is heightened as those patients have less reserve to fight off infections and colonization,” he said.
Hupp declined to say whether any of the six positive staff members showed symptoms of infection. All infants and staff in the NICU have since been tested for the bacteria. Several tests, Hupp said, remain pending.
The infants who tested positive have been put in contact isolation — anyone in contact with them must wear gloves and gowns, and visitors have been limited to parents or guardians, Hupp said. The staff members who tested positive are off work until they test negative.
Mertz said MRSA is treatable and preventable, mainly through hand-washing and keeping open wounds covered.
“I think the hysteria has gone down a little about MRSA,” she said. “There’s a lot more that we know about it — it’s common, it’s treatable, we know basic ways to prevent it.”