The Seattle Times’ new three-part series (Culture of Resistance) on MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant superbug that’s killing thousands of hospital patients every year made me want to wash my hands over and over like Lady Macbeth.

And Joyce Allen, featured in The Seattle Times, who not only suffered “excruciating” pain as a result of a severe MRSA infection and is now crippled for life, is one clear example of why hospitals urgently need to change course.

Despite the fact that hospitals have seen MRSA outbreaks for decades, many hospitals still aren’t doing enough to protect patients from getting infected, and more people are getting sick or dying as a result. It’s inexcusable that a surgeon would refuse to wear a mask during surgery, or be careless about handling medical instruments in between patients.

Last year the CDC reported that MRSA caused over 94,000 life-threatening infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in 2005 nationwide, most of them occurring in hospitals. In Washington hospitals alone, 4,643 patients had MRSA in 2006, up from 815 MRSA patients in 2000, reports The Seattle Times. In 2006, 190 Washington patients died from MRSA compared to 58 patients six years earlier. With MRSA infections killing more people per year than AIDS, implementing good infection prevention and control practices should be common sense. From The Seattle Times:

Federal veterans hospitals screen all patients for MRSA, which has reduced their cases to near zero. Yet not a single community hospital in Washington screens every patient for the pathogen.

Many hospital officials say widespread screening is unnecessary and too burdensome. They say broad infection-control measures, such as washing hands and wearing protective garments, can thwart MRSA’s spread.

It’s true that hand-washing is an effective and easy way to prevent MRSA. Unfortunately, hospitals have not succeeded in improving hand hygiene, especially among doctors. Screening patients upon admission allows health care workers to focus on those with the greatest potential to spread the bug – and save lives. Washington passed a law in 2007 that requires hospitals in the state to disclose the rate at which patients acquire certain infections during treatment, but it doesn’t include MRSA infections.

After The Seattle Times Culture of Resistance series was published, the WA Department of Health said it would begin to require hospitals report MRSA cases. The Department did not comment on whether those numbers would be made available to the public. Currently, only four states have laws requiring screening and isolation of MRSA patients: Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

While we’ll be working hard to get more infection disclosure and MRSA screening bills passed, it’s good to know we can also take steps everyday to help protect ourselves from getting infected, such as hand-washing and not sharing personal items like bar soap, razors and towels.