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Hospitals Cut Deadly Bloodstream Infections, But Challenges Remain

If you're in the hospital, one of the biggest dangers to your health is an infection from a tube inserted into a big vein in your chest, neck or groin.

These so-called " central lines" are catheters used to administer certain kinds of drugs, nutrition and also to hold sensors that monitor how you're doing. Unfortunately, the tubes can serve as conduits for bacteria that can cause deadly infection.

In recent years there's been a big push to reduce those infections, especially in intensive care units. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the work in ICUs has really paid off.

In the past decade central line infections among ICU patients fell by more than half, from around 43,000 in 2001 to just 18,000 in 2009, according to estimates just publishedonline in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The decline in infections, which can kill an many as one-quarter of people who get them, means from 3,000 to 6,000 lives were probably saved, the CDC says.

But keep the celebration to a minimum. The progress in ICUs underscores the work that needs to be done elsewhere in hospitals and at dialysis centers, according to the CDC.

By the CDC's estimate, there were about 23,000 central line infections of hospitalized patients who weren't in ICUs in 2009, and about 37,000 such infections among dialysis patients the year before.

The results "point to a clear need for action beyond ICUs," the CDC's Denise Cardo said in a statement.

Dialysis clinics are now in the quality cross hairs. About 80 percent of people getting dialysis in the United States start treatment with a central line. There are alternatives with lower infection rates that are popular in other countries. A move that way could help bring the number of infections down.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.