NEW ORLEANS -- Old wounds are now reopened for the families of nearly a half-dozen patients who died at Children's Hospital. The medical facility confirming those patients contracted a deadly fungus from bed linens.
The outbreak has forced the hospital to change how it does business.
"We failed to do what we should have done, pure and simple. We dropped the ball," said Children's Hospital Medical Director Dr. John Heaton.
Five years ago, five young patients already battling serious illness showed up to Children's Hospital hoping to get better. Instead the medical facility now confirms that they contracted a rare fungal infection called mucormycosis from the sheets.
"We narrowed our search down to a possible association with the linens that the patients rested on," said Dr. Heaton.
During a news conference Thursday afternoon, the hospital's medical director explained how the fungal outbreak stretched over a one-year period from 2008 to 2009. Once the hospital noticed a pattern, Heaton said state health officials & the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were immediately contacted.
Hospital officials say when the outbreak source was detected, several steps were taken to contain the situation: old linens were thrown away, storage areas were sterilized and the hospital ended its contract with the local linen vendor.
After a media report surfaced this week about the outbreak, hospital officials apologized to those families left in the dark on Thursday.
Heaton said the fungus likely contributed to the death of patients who were already "gravely ill."
"Although we made an extraordinary effort to identify the source of this infection, we did not make an extraordinary effort to communicate with our families and disclose the nature of this illness," said Heaton.
"It's detectable, it's preventable and a lot of times it's very much treatable," said former New Orleans Health Director Dr. Kevin Stephens.
Stephens said timely disclosure of such outbreaks is not only essential for patients but public health.
Stephens adds when loved ones pass, medical professionals and death certificates need to clearly explain how someone died.
"That's the big story here is that the five cases should have really stopped with one case. So the doctors would have known and had a better chance of detecting and preventing more cases," Stephens said.
Children's Hospital says its standards now are to fully disclose any adverse event or any hospital acquired condition that affects any of its patients.
According to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court records, at least one family connected to the fungal cases has filed a lawsuit against the hospital.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals issued a written statement regarding the cases at Children's Hospital:
"Investigations regarding infectious disease are a serious matter. In conducting these investigations, the Department must weigh the risks to the general public while protecting the privacy of families and patients. As those most at risk for Mucormycosis are patients with significantly suppressed immune systems, the risk to the general population was very low in this situation. However, DHH did contact other hospitals to determine if similar problems were occurring.
"While Louisiana law does not require reporting of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), the hospital in this case took the prudent step of reporting the situation to DHH as its own internal investigation identified several patients with the infection over an extended period of time in 2008 and 2009. Because we needed a lab with specialized capabilities we quickly included the CDC.
"DHH participates in statewide efforts to prevent infections, which we and the CDC find to be the most effective way to limit HAIs. We routinely communicate with infection prevention specialists throughout the state, including through discussions and presentations with hospitals, long-term care facilities and epidemiologists, among others. This communication is thorough and ongoing.