Bacterial infection causes some infants who were given donated breast milk to die.
Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania, said the process it used to prepare donor breast milk was the cause of deadly bacterial infections that led to the death of three infants who had been in the center’s neonatal intensive care unit. In July of this year, some of these premature babies began to get ill without the cause being immediately known to providers. Ultimately, between August and September, bacterial infections claimed three lives.
“Our infection control team has traced the bacteria to the equipment used in measuring donor breast milk, which helps premature infants with their nutritional needs,” Dr. Edward Hartle, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Geisinger, said, adding, “We would like to extend our sincere apologies to the families who have been affected by this incident” and “the hospital knows that the public holds us to the highest standards.”
The bacteria that caused the fatalities is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which grows and multiplies in moist environments. “Pseudomonas can easily grow in humidifiers and types of medical equipment – catheters, for instance – that aren’t properly cleaned,” according to WebMD. “If health care workers don’t wash their hands well, they can also transfer the bacteria from an infected patient to you.”
The hospital, with the help of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, “used DNA testing to determine the cause of the infections,” Hartle said. Afterwards, it changed the breast milk preparation procedure to “single-use equipment to measure and administer donor breast milk.”
“We have had no new cases of infants becoming ill from pseudomonas in the NICU since making this change,” he added, explaining that “the donor breast milk at Geisinger is safe and we are certain the milk itself was not the cause of the exposure.”
At least one of the families whose child died has filed a lawsuit against the hospital. Abel Cepeda was born to Zuleyka Rodriguez and Luis David Cepeda on September 24 and he died six days later, the same day that the breast milk process was changed.
Matt Casey, an attorney representing two out of the three families whose infants died, said the hospital’s statement “raises more questions than it answers.” He added, “They haven’t told these families anything about the details of when they knew about this, and what they did about it prior to their babies being admitted to that NICU.”
Casey said Abel’s “parents were told that they didn’t know why he died.” Yet, a day before the infections were announced to the public, the parents got a call telling them the cause of their baby’s death was a bacterial infection.
The hospital’s staff gave Cepeda antibiotics before his death because “they knew that they had placed [him] at a constant, heightened risk of contracting a Pseudomonas infection every day that he remained” in the NICU, according to the lawsuit.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve seen a lot, and I have not seen conduct like this from a medical provider,” Casey said. “We are going to get wholly to the bottom of who knew what, when.”
Five other infants were sickened by exposure but survived. One has been discharged and the others are still at the center.