Frustration and Optimism: My Mixed Emotions for Reducing Healthcare-associated Infections at Birth

This post is part of a series authored by the BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings) team. BASICS is a new initiative that will transform healthcare and reduce healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) by at least 50%.

Written by Wendy J. Graham
Professor of Obstetric Epidemiology, Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology

Today, advances in healthcare routinely enable miracles of survival and recovery. But some discoveries have been forgotten or demoted in the race to implement the latest. The importance of hygiene at the time of birth goes back centuries.* Yet here in the 21st century, so-called “places of care” bring increased risks of infection to patients and health workers when basic preventive principles are not followed. Safe water to drink, a clean surface to deliver upon, and good hand hygiene by those attending you – how more basic can it be?

After nearly 40 years in public health, I am re-invigorated by the chance to be part of what the BASICS partnership proposes: integrating four agencies’ best practices and learning in infection prevention in healthcare settings into one systematic approach in partnership with countries to dramatically reduce infection rates at the point of care.

Health facilities – and especially maternity wards – are the natural environment of my interest and passion for change. Initial work in Botswana in the late 1970s and early 1980s – at the time when HIV/AIDS was just emerging, gave me a firm grounding in the tough realities of healthcare in under-resourced settings, together with a lifelong admiration for health workers who provide care 24/7 in such circumstances.

It’s in these maternity wards where many mothers and newborns acquire infections. They’re often busy and overcrowded places, with invasive procedures, instruments that may not be sterilized between use, and major infrastructural and supply challenges to maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. The photo here of a ward in West Africa captures this situation – indeed, with women being asked to bring their own bottle of bleach when they came to deliver as there had been no cleaning fluids in the maternity for months.

This is a striking reminder of the hidden costs of care families endure and the weakness in the health system, which means women deliver where “safe care” cannot be guaranteed and where health workers cannot protect themselves from infection risks either. Both “cannot’s” are violations of basic human rights.

This is why I’m so excited about the potential of BASICS to empower all health workers about proper hygiene and infection prevention practices and enable health systems to provide safe care equitably and routinely. And we mean “all” – acknowledging the crucial role in facilities played by workers who are not care practitioners – such as cleaners, orderlies and maintenance staff –  in creating a clean environment. These often-forgotten “workers for health” also have great potential to be agents for change.

But, of course, it’s not just the four BASICS collaborators and the crucial country partners who want better health outcomes for mothers and their newborns, and for them to leave a facility without a life-threatening infection.

Access to health facilities providing clean care was the second-highest demand of the 1.2 million women and girls in 114 countries who took part in the White Ribbon Alliance’s 2018 global What Women Want campaign on reproductive and maternal health needs. Women and girls overwhelmingly demanded clean facilities, clean toilets in maternity wards, a clean bed, and skilled health providers with sterile supplies and clean hands. 

None of these demands are impossible to achieve. The crucial innovation proposed by BASICS is to take the best evidence-based practices of each partner and create one comprehensive package of training, access to clean water in facilities, an innovative cleaning product and systems change in order to institutionalize and sustain clean care in the partner countries.

I am optimistic that BASICS can result in better quality healthcare that will save tens of thousands of lives and millions of dollars by averting healthcare-acquired infections.

In the time it has taken to read this, many more health workers’ could have washed their hands, many more women could have delivered on clean beds and with sterile instruments, and many more babies could have been discharged home without an infection from the facility. This advance does not require a new discovery – we know what to do now.

BASICS will be a catalyst for the miracle of survival and good health for mothers and newborns. 

To learn more about BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings) is a new initiative that will transform healthcare and reduce healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) by at least 50%, visit savethechildren.org.

 

*Graham WJ, Dancer SJ, Gould IM, Stones W. (2015) Childbed fever: history repeats itself? BJOG, 122:156–159.