Marking Infection Prevention Week: Being Proactive Instead of Reactive

October 17, 2022

We only have to go back to the early-to-mid 1900s to see what life was like when we had no antibiotics or other antimicrobials. Now, infection prevention – and ultimately sepsis prevention – is becoming more critical than ever as we race to find ways to avoid going back to those days. Infections that were once manageable may become impossible to treat. Infection Prevention Week was first established in 1986 to focus on how preventing infections saves lives by being proactive (preventing) instead of reactive (treating). This year, Infection Prevention Week is from October 16 – 22.

The world has been focusing on managing the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two-and-a-half years. Now that progress has been made in slowing its spread, experts are looking ahead at a post-pandemic world and how we might react when we are once again exposed to other respiratory viruses like the flu.

Infection Prevention Strategies Work

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a good lesson in how effective infection prevention strategies can be. We saw that masking and social distancing did slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. We also learned that these measures reduced not only COVID-19 cases but also other respiratory infections. The 2019/2020 flu season – the last flu season before the pandemic began – recorded nearly 130,000 flu cases in the United States. But during the 2020/2021 flu season, just months after we began infection prevention measures, there were only 1,316 recorded cases of influenza.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause serious illness, especially among children, also dropped drastically with COVID-19 infection prevention practices. Pre-pandemic, 58,000 children under five were hospitalized annually because of RSV. There were 100 to 300 deaths each year. The virus also led to 177,000 hospitalizations among adults 65 or older, and 14,000 deaths. There were far fewer cases once the pandemic began.

Returning to daycare, school, and in-person work – not to mention playdates, sporting events, and other social gatherings – will cause respiratory infection numbers to rise again. And the affected people may be sicker than they might have been before 2020. Experts say this is because we were not exposed to these viruses for over two years. Continuous exposure helps us build immunity. But now we may be more vulnerable to these viral infections.

To reduce this risk, we must continue working to prevent infections.

Vaccine Rates Dropping, Despite Proven Effectiveness

Aside from masking and distancing, vaccines are also important in infection prevention. But as people waited for, and then got vaccines for COVID-19, routine vaccines for other infections dropped. For example, 25 million children worldwide missed vaccinations for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus since the pandemic began.

Closer to home, the CDC reported that more than 35,000 kindergarteners in the U.S. missed their routine vaccinations since the pandemic’s start. There could be more though, since fewer children registered for kindergarten than usual (about 400,000 fewer), and many in that group may also be unvaccinated.

“This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director, in a news release in July. “While a pandemic hangover was expected last year as a result of COVID-19 disruptions and lockdowns, what we are seeing now is a continued decline. COVID-19 is not an excuse. We need immunization catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more outbreaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health systems.”

For this reason, parents or guardians must make an effort to get their children’s vaccine status back on track. The CDC provides schedules for routine vaccine timing, and a schedule for catching up if vaccines have been missed.

Beware of Surprises

Traditionally, respiratory viruses are most common during the winter when we spend more time indoors. Once the weather improves and we start spending more time outside again, the numbers drop. This seasonal aspect of a virus helps governments and healthcare organizations set up timely vaccine programs.

However, doctors are now finding “out-of-season” illnesses. Influenza, for example, saw an uptick in infections in May this year, when flu season is usually winding down. And even more surprising, more children had RSV in the summer – which is rarely seen at that time of year. In 2020, the CDC reported only a dozen RSV infections during one week in July. Last year, there were 1,700 confirmed cases within that same week’s span.

What You Can Do to Support Infection Prevention Week

Infection prevention week is not just for healthcare professionals. It is for everyone. We are more aware of the importance and effectiveness of infection prevention than ever before.

Here are some things you can do to help reduce the risk of infections and sepsis, as well as antimicrobial resistance because the fewer infections that circulate, the less the need for antimicrobial drugs to treat them:

  • Continue with frequent and thorough hand washing.
  • Mask if you have a respiratory infection and you must leave your home.
    • If there are outbreaks of respiratory illnesses, like the flu or COVID-19, wear a mask if you are in a large group or in a confined space with others.
  • Stay home if you are ill with an infection.
  • Continue coughing or sneezing into your elbow instead of your hand.
  • Consider continuing with fist or elbow bumps over handshakes and hugs.
  • Don’t ask for antibiotics if you have a viral infection.
  • Don’t take someone else’s antimicrobial medication even if you’re sure you have the same infection.
  • If you have a prescription for an antimicrobial to fight an infection, take the entire course of medications. Don’t stop early because you feel better.

We all play a vital role in infection prevention and in reducing the rise of antimicrobial resistant bugs. You can learn more about sepsis, superbugs, and antimicrobial resistance here.