NIH sinks for a decade, infecting patients

National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center is responsible for a rare multi-drug-resistant bacterium that flourished inside sinks for more than a decade, infecting more than a dozen patients, confirmed by a new report published by NIH scientist.

Experts were able to track the superbugs to sinks during a massive outbreak in 2016. Researchers analyzed genetic sequences of clinical samples collected as far back as 2006, only one year after a new inpatient hospital building opened. The research found eight other cases for a total of 12 cases where the sink-dwelling germs had splashed into patients.

The germ has been identified as Sphingomonas koreensis. These species are known to be ubiquitous in the environment however rarely cause infections. Although that wasn’t the case for the NIH patients, they were found to have pneumonia, blood infections, a surgical site infection, and potential urinary tract colonization. In some cases, these germs were resistant to 10 antibiotics tested, spanning three classes of drugs.

The researchers claim that three of the 12 affected patients died following their infections. But they also suffered from severe, unrelated infections before coming into contact with the sink-based germs.

A recent report published in the New England and Journal of Medicine discusses the problem of drug-resistant pathogens endangering weak patients by lurking in hospitals and mainly hospital sinks. They reported before that the superbug sinks have been identified in multiple hospitals over the years. Adding that in 2017, a scientist published a studying showing that deadly germs can survive in the sink, climbing plumbing and attaching to touchable surfaces with help from the faucet.

Even though the findings of previous studies proved different, the  NIH’s case leads to germs growing in sink faucets and fixtures-not sink drains.

In the efforts to disassemble infected sinks, experts found S. koreensis inhabiting nine plumbing parts, including their faucets, aerators and mixing valves. They had the faucets replaced, only to discover they were recolonized shortly after. In the end, the researchers had to up the hot water temperature and chlorine concentration for the hospital to cleanse the pipes of all germs.

In conclusion, they claim that “a single S. koreensis strain entered the water system soon after construction of the new NIH Clinical Center hospital building in 2004” and colonized the pipes before the hospital opened, while water was still. The germ then “ disseminated throughout the hospital and diversified at multiple distinct locations,” and believed to cause a super decade-long clonal outbreak.

NIH isn’t a stranger to outbreaks like this. Their primary goal is to treat rare and intractable illnesses with innovative medicine. Back in 2011, the center was hit with an explosion of carbapenem-resistant K. pneumonia, which affected 18 and left 11 dead. Four years later a case of fungal contamination at the hospital which led to a leadership rebuild.

Nevertheless, the authors of the new study highlight that the threat of the recent break out is not unique to the hospital regardless of the current struggles. They emphasized, “steps taken in this study to prevent further S. koreensis infections within the NIH Clinical Center apply to many opportunistic waterborne pathogens.” More research is being conducted.