Thousands of hospital patients die every year from infections that start in a central line, a catheter used to inject life-saving medications directly into the bloodstream. One infection can add two to three weeks and a whopping $55,000 to a patient’s hospital stay. Even worse, up to 25 percent of patients who come down with a central line infection die from it—a staggering number considering that 41,000 such infections are recorded in the U.S. each year.
The problem is that the catheter’s hub—the port where it enters the body—is exposed to bacteria in the world around it. If clinicians don’t thoroughly clean the hub before each use, they risk pushing bacteria straight into a patient’s blood. But that brings up a second problem.
Sepsis, or bacterial infection of the bloodstream, is a grave threat to premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who have catheters and intravenous lines. Even when antibiotics clear the infection itself, the inflammation that it causes can do just as much damage. Not only can sepsis and the resulting inflammation interfere with fragile preemies’ ability to gain weight, but a growing literature suggests that they can impair brain development.
Preventive measures can now avoid many cases of sepsis, but those that slip through can be hard to detect in newborns.
“Newborns can’t speak, and they have unique immune systems, so they tend not to have fevers or show clinical signs,” explains Ofer Levy, MD, PhD, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. “There may be irregular breathing or increased heart rate, or the baby may be acting a little ‘off,’ but these signs are pretty nonspecific. There’s a tremendous need for better diagnostics in this field.”