TAMPA - By now you've probably heard of so-called superbugs - bacteria so resistant to antibiotics they can't be cured.
So what if the superbug epidemic was even worse than what we've been told? A lot worse, in fact.
The results of a new study from Reuters suggest just that.
Two weeks ago Sarah West went to the hospital in Tampa with a thyroid issue. And the whole time, she says, she insisted on wearing a surgical mask “to make sure I didn't catch I think that was floating around in the hospital.”
Her fear? Going in for one problem, but by the time she left, “getting something worse,” she said.
The new study from Reuters concludes Sarah's fears are well founded - that an epidemic of hospital-acquired bacterial infections like MRSA are killing people in this country, but going so vastly unreported that if they were properly accounted it could possibly eclipse heart disease and cancer as a leading cause of death.
Steve Huard with the Florida Department of Health says it's only their job to make sure death certificates are properly completed. The state records what doctors tell them, he says.
“It's absolutely in every case the physician's call. It's called a long form. But what they put on there is what we put on the official form. And that's what officially goes in,” said Huard.
But that, the study suggests, creates a conflict of interest.
Hospitals and nursing homes, say critics, may be looking to avoid lawsuits. They point to cases where death certificates cite the initial reason a patient was admitted when recording cause of death instead of a superbug infection contracted during treatment.
“What they determine the cause of death is.That's what it is,” said Huard.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 23,000 people around the country die each year from superbug infections.
But Reuters reviewed the death certificates and its study concluded the number was likely much higher than that. By some estimations, closer to 180,000.
The study also found that there may be other reasons superbugs are left off the death certificate, including a lack of training or lab results that take too long to get back.
But critics, pointing to the Reuters report, say the public has a right to know just how widespread the problem is. And until they do, they fear it won't be properly addressed.