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How Florence Nightingale Cleaned up ‘Hell on Earth’ Hospitals

In late 1854, Florence Nightingale arrived in Istanbul to treat casualties from the Crimean War.  What she found were conditions of abject squalor, disease and filth. Sent to manage the nurses, she quickly made a much larger impact. A PBS feature run in honor of her birthday traced her emergence during this conflict and her later efforts to revolutionize medical care and collective hygiene. Her efforts to improve sanitation may have saved thousands of lives, but infectious diseases contracted at hospitals remain a grave concern. 

Many of Florence Nightingale’s greatest contributions dealt with the dangers posed by what we today recognize as hospital acquired infections. Sanitizing military hospitals and alleviating the suffering of the wounded is what Florence Nightingale is best remembered for, although she wielded considerable influence during the decades after the war and was a trailblazer for women’s rights

After arriving in the Crimean theater of war, Florence discovered that 10 times more soldiers died of diseases than war wounds. She immediately turned her efforts to improving the ventilation of military hospitals and improving the grossly inadequate sanitary standards of the time.

It is hard to believe that over a century and a half later, that a quarter of U.S. hospital patients are still contracting infections during their stay. MSN reports that a new antibiotic resistant bacterium has been discovered at Houston, and can be added to the already lengthy list of superbugs. 

The misuse of antibiotics is largely responsible for this crisis, but hospitals are having problems getting even the simple details right. The modern U.S. bears little semblance to a 19th century battlefield, but somehow filthy hospital beds are still a serious issue. Researchers discovered that if the person who occupied your hospital bed before you received antibiotics, you have a greater potential for contracting clostridium difficile (C. diff.), a deadly virus that triggers massive diarrhea and may lead to death

The state of medical technology has advanced considerably since the time of Florence Nightingale, but unsanitary practices remain prevalent. For example, the primary tools used to screen for colon cancer are sigmoidoscopes and colonoscopes. These devices are not disposable, so they must be sterilized between each use. About 80 percent of endoscopes are cleaned using Cidex (glutaraldehyde), which does NOT properly sterilize these tools, potentially allowing for the transfer of infectious material. 

Knowing how to prevent disease so you can avoid hospitals in the first place is clearly your best bet. Hospitals may not appear to be the sort of cesspool found on a Victorian-era battlefield, but they are still rife with danger. I would stress the importance of prevention, prevention, prevention. And that includes avoiding unnecessary hospital visits. The basic key to keeping your immune system healthy is making good lifestyle choices such as proper diet, stress management and exercise.

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