The Wages of Austerity: Superbug Runs Wild in Greek Hospitals

Many writers tend to depict the effects of austerity in purely economic terms: loss of wealth and income, lesser income/social mobility. But depressions and accompanying changes in social norms can and do have more serious consequences.

A story in Bloomberg illustrates how the combination of budgets slashed thanks to austerity policies leads directly to deaths. The Wall Street Journal described last year how distress in the Greek economy had produced a significant increase in suicides. A new Bloomberg story recounts how severe cutbacks in hospital staffing have enabled superbugs that is hard to combat even under normal circumstances to inflict even more fatalities than usual in Greek hospitals. An ugly side to this problem is that overreliance on antibiotics in Greece created the conditions that helped these potent infectious agents to develop.

From Bloomberg:

Greek doctors are fighting a new invisible foe every day at their hospitals: a pneumonia-causing superbug that most existing antibiotics can’t kill.. The hospital-acquired germ killed as many as half of people with blood cancers infected at Laiko General Hospital, a 500-bed facility in central Athens.

The drug-resistant K. pneumoniae bacteria have a genetic mutation that allows them to evade such powerful drugs as AstraZeneca Plc’s Merrem and Johnson & Johnson’s Doribax. A 2010 survey found 49 percent of K. pneumoniae samples in Greece aren’t killed by the antibiotics of last resort, known as carbapenems, according to the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance Network. Many doctors have even tried colistin, a 50-year-old drug so potent that it can damage kidneys…

Greece has the lowest nurse-to-patient ratio in Europe and one of the highest rates of antibiotic use — and abuse — on the continent, hindering the attack on the infection…

The superbug, dubbed KPC, first appeared in Greece in 2007 after spreading through the U.S. and then Israel. By 2010, Austria, Cyprus, Hungary and Italy were also experiencing an increase in cases, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a surveillance report in December.

In the worst outbreaks, as many as half of the people who develop a blood infection due to KPC are killed…

While Greece is striving to curb KPC, the country faces fewer problems with multi-drug resistant, so-called Gram- positive bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the superbug better known as MRSA, than do other nations, said Spyros Pournaras, an associate professor of medical microbiology at the University Hospital of Larissa…

“We have problems,” he said in an interview in Athens. “But let’s not generalize that we’re a threat for Europe.” Greece also doesn’t have so-called Gram-negative bacteria with gene mutations known as NDM, IMP and OXA-48, which are common elsewhere, Pournaras said…

Another issue is the lack of nurses, Dimopoulos said. For example, an overworked nurse might change a catheter or a wound dressing without washing her hands, he said — a prime opportunity for bacteria to hop from one patient to another.

He held up his hands. “This is number one,” Dimopoulos said, for transmission of the bacteria. “This and the stethoscope.”

I don’t know about you, but this has a Dickensian sound to it. People dying in due to chronic hospital understaffing sits uncomfortably with the pristine, efficient image of modern medicine. But this is far from the only instance where the crisis has served to reinstitute a more brutal social order.

This post originally appeared at naked capitalism and is posted with permission.

2 Responses to "The Wages of Austerity: Superbug Runs Wild in Greek Hospitals"

  1. Mike   February 10, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I apologize for my rudeness, but Roubini economics is nonsense in terms of Greek economic therapy. You don't know how corrupt Greece is in terms of its legal system and its tax collection. Ireland and Portugal are already recovering although they are within the austerity and eurozone limits and will probably come out and borrow in debt markets. Greece is a really special case of mismanagement.