A mold infection has claimed the lives of 3 transplant patients at 2 University of Pittsburgh medical centers, and a fourth patient is deathly ill. The first 2 deaths occurred at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian, and the third occurred at UPMC Montefiore, which is next-door to UPMC Presbyterian. [1]

Officials are still hunting for the source of the fungus. The medical center closed its cardiothoracic intensive care unit on September 3 for an environmental cleanup. Mold deposits were discovered in toilets and behind walls in the unit. UPMC doesn’t know how the fungus got there. Two of the patients who died stayed in the same room in the ICU at UPMC Presbyterian.

What investigators do know is that the type of mold they’re looking for is a run-of-the-mill household type – not some killer mold that should terrify people with normal immune systems. The infected organ transplant patients were vulnerable because they had decreased immunity.

“The mold that causes infections like this is common in the environment and is not a risk to anyone except those who are most severely immunocompromised,” UPMC said in a statement without giving the scientific name of the mold.

The Centers for Disease Control says that fungal infections are a known risk for patients that undergo organ transplant. Their immunity is further suppressed by the drugs they are given to prevent their body from rejecting the organ.

UPMC is tackling the problem by sending a disinfecting robot to the cardiothoracic ICU to kill any mold with ultraviolet light. It is also giving all of its UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Montefiore transplant patients an antifungal medication, even if they are not infected, to prevent them from getting an infection. Investigators have taken air samples at both facilities and have found nothing alarming.

Neither Pennsylvania nor federal law requires hospitals or doctors to report fungal infections, as they would be required to for communicable diseases and other infections. UPMC waited until a third patient – a lung transplant recipient –  died to report the infections to local and state authorities to tell them about the pattern, which may qualify as a reportable outbreak.

And the public was only informed of the first patient and the fungal infection last Monday, after it was leaked that UPMC Presbyterian had shut down the ICU. By September 8, the hospital had transferred 18 of its patients to other facilities, and then it took UPMC 3 more days to tell the public about the other 2 infections.

“Hospital administrators are very reluctant to admit that there are molds in their hospitals because of liability issues and worry that people won’t want to go there because they’ve gotten a bad rap,” said Tang Lee, professor of environmental design practice at the University of Calgary, Canada, who has investigated fungal outbreaks in hospitals.

Lee said hospitals’ negative experiences with fungal infections began in the 1990’s when a number of large outbreaks at hospitals in Florida, Kentucky and other states caused deaths and multimillion-dollar settlements. [3]

This article originally appeared at Natural Society.


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