When microbial contamination becomes a secret

Personally, I find this article pretty disturbing: Iowa City VA patients not told about bacteria problem.  Basically, the story is, that the bacterium that causes Legionnaires disease (Legionella pneumophila) has been found in the water system at a VA hospital in Iowa.  And the managers of the hospital say “But they said they’ve been able to control the problem, and they have not seen the need to cause alarm by telling patients.”  Many of the people interviewed in the article are not thrilled with that response.  And neither am I.  One of the best ways to help combat the possibility of hospital acquired infections (in my opinion) is to be fully open about the risks and what is known about where microbes of concern are found.  We need MORE analyses and public disclosure of things like MRSA rates and presence of specific taxa in the hospitals, rather than less.

Dick Allison is reported as saying “That’s the whole problem,” he said. “When somebody lies to you once, you wonder if they’re lying to you about everything else.”  Exactly my feeling.  Why should people trust hospital administrators about anything when they seem to be keeping information from them?  Yes, it is hard to run a hospital.  And yes some people may panic if they hear about contamination.  Too bad.  Openness and disclosure trump those issues in my mind.

Now – this does not mean that one should test for such bacteria everywhere and anywhere.  And sometimes if tests reveal low levels that could be considered a “background” detection and might not need to be disclosed.  But the default should be disclosure unless one can prove that such disclosure if of no value.

Veteran's Hospital
Photo Credit: Adrianne Behning Photography; via Flickr


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Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. My lab is in the UC Davis Genome Center and I hold appointments in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis (see my lab site here which has more information on lab activities).  In addition to research, I am heavily involved in the Open Access publishing and Open Science movements.