White Memorial Medical Center near downtown Los Angeles has closed its neonatal and pediatric intensive care units to new admissions after seven children became infected with a virulent bacterium, including one baby who probably died as a result, hospital officials said Friday.
The Boyle Heights hospital shut its busy neonatal unit Dec. 4 after identifying an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is believed to have infected five babies.
Then Friday, White Memorial closed its high-level pediatric unit after learning that two older children were infected with the bacterium. Dr. Rosalio Lopez, the hospital's chief medical officer, said he is unsure if the new cases are linked to the outbreak among babies.
Neither unit will be reopened until "we believe it is safe for the patients to be admitted," Lopez said, adding that other parts of the hospital are not affected.
White Memorial officials said they believe that the most likely cause of the outbreak is improper cleaning of a laryngoscope blade, a piece of equipment used to insert breathing tubes. They are working with local, state and federal health investigators to conclusively determine the source.
Lopez said the hospital has tightened its infection control practices, notified the families of patients in the affected units and given antibiotics to all babies remaining in the neonatal unit as a precaution.
"Our first priority is to continue to work with the families affected in this situation," Lopez said. "We're totally committed to providing our patients safe care."
Any critically ill babies born at the hospital now are being taken to a special isolation area to be stabilized before being transferred to other hospitals. High-risk pregnant women are also being advised to consult with their doctors to determine if they should go to White Memorial or another hospital.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a common bacterium found in water and soil and can be spread through body contact, fluids and water. In most people, it is not deadly or even dangerous, because their immune systems can ward off infection.
But that is not the case in patients with weakened immune systems, such as premature babies, patients with cancer or AIDS and those on breathing machines.
In such situations, the bacterium can cause a variety of infections depending on where it enters the body. These include respiratory, urinary tract and blood infections.
It can spread rapidly and, in some cases, be unstoppable.
Babies in the neonatal unit are especially at risk for infections, because they are often connected to ventilators, tubes, monitors and other equipment that give bacteria an easy pathway to the body.
While our son was in the NICU there were quite a few babies with Pseudomonas. The infected pods were emptied and disinfected, which seemed to help. Our son was lucky enough to not get it, but some of the other preemies around weren't as lucky.