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Tallying an Unclear Toll

Md. May Track Infections Contracted in Hospitals

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page B01

Mark Bennett went to the hospital last February with pneumonia and never came home. When he died, four months after being admitted and after passing through five hospitals, his body had been assaulted by six separate bacterial infections, according to his son, Michael Bennett. One forced doctors to amputate a leg, and another was formally listed as the 89-year-old's cause of death.

Family members believe that the hospitals where Mark Bennett spent the last months of his life not only did not save him from death but actually sped his demise by failing to follow basic rules of hygiene.

Paul Leuba, with a photo of his sister Ginny, testifies before the Maryland House of Delegates about an infection his sister caught in a hospital that he believes led to her death. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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"He had almost no interruption in suffering," Michael Bennett, of Baltimore, said of his father. "It was pure, unadulterated hell."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 90,000 people die each year in the United States from infections they contract in the hospital -- more than five times the number of homicides each year. Some experts believe that with the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such infections are on the rise. But it is impossible to know because reporting is not required and studies on the topic are sporadic.

That would change in Maryland under a bill heard yesterday in a House of Delegates committee that would require the state's 54 acute-care hospitals to collect data on hospital-acquired infections and publish an annual report by 2006.

Cal Pierson, president of the Maryland Hospital Association, said that the group supports the aims of the bill but that similar efforts are being made to accomplish the same goals.

"There's no real need in Maryland to deviate from the plan that's already underway," Pierson said.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), would force disclosure sooner than the plans in progress -- an urgency that advocates for such measures say is needed to force hospitals to improve hygiene and bolster efforts to stop hospital-borne infections.

"There needs to be some outside pressure for real accountability in the health care system," said Lisa McGiffert, a hospital-infections expert with Consumers Union, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. "We're trying to get hospitals to take seriously their own policies to reduce the spread of infections."

More than a dozen states are considering similar legislation this year, according to Consumers Union, which has lobbied for such bills in several states. Pennsylvania is the only state currently collecting hospital-infection data; Illinois, Missouri and Florida recently passed laws requiring data collection.

Some hospital groups and experts on hospital-acquired infections say that gathering infection data is a much more complicated process than advocates suggest and that there is no way to guarantee that procedures would be uniform. Experts have voiced concerns that hospitals that most conscientiously gather data would suffer because their reported rates would be higher.

The CDC estimates that as many as 2 million people contract infections from hospitals each year. The deaths that result from such infections could be much higher -- or lower -- than the 90,000 estimate, experts said, because data are virtually nonexistent.

Before he entered the hospital, Mark Bennett, a World War II veteran and one-time actor, was "very independent, totally with it," his son said.

He came down with viral pneumonia a year ago and was admitted to the hospital. He soon developed an infection that led to his leg being amputated. Other infections, which Michael Bennett believes his father acquired while in the hospital, attacked his internal organs. In the end, Michael Bennett said, his father's voice was little more than a croak, his airway narrowed to five millimeters by an infection attacking his trachea.

Mark Bennett died June 13. He had turned 89 two days earlier.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company