While the rhythms of infection prevention become white noise when they run smoothly in the background of medical offices and hospitals, this week gives us the opportunity to celebrate and appreciate all of the vital work infection prevention professionals do. The very backbone of effective healthcare–and public health generally–is infection prevention.
From Louis Pasteur’s formulation of germ theory, to the simultaneous theorizing about the connections between hand-washing and the spread of illness by Ignaz Semmelwies and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to the meticulous observations and record keeping of Florence Nightingale, to the hospital architectural innovations Douglas Galton made based on Nightingale’s input, the late 19th century experienced a surge in innovation relating to infection prevention. Before this, there were many ideas about how illnesses spread and how to prevent it–but none were based on empirical data, nor were prevention methods reliable or easily scaled. Once the 20th century arrived, and with it, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, modern medicine progressed at unprecedented speeds.
By the mid-20th century, infection prevention had made it to the realm of national public policy, as nations realized it was in their best interests to implement wide-scale programs to counter the spread of deadly diseases like polio and the flu. Vaccination campaigns were, and continue to be, on the front lines of infection prevention. Additionally, thanks to advances in microscopes, researchers began to be able to test the naturally antimicrobial properties of substances like copper, and products that incorporated copper alloys began to show up in key medical technologies. This research has led to the fabrication of other antimicrobial surfaces places ranging from surgery rooms to public bathrooms.
Even though contemporary infection prevention methods still rely on the foundations of germ theory, hand washing, and observation-based record keeping, as we leave the twenty-teens, infection prevention professionals face new challenges, sometimes on surprising fronts. In response to the growing number of infections acquired from overnight stays in medical institutions, professionals across disciplines have joined together to innovate ways to create less invasive procedures, and to adopt shorter hospital stays.
But an even more pervasive threat to a disease-free population has come in the public sphere, where misinformation and unfounded claims about the harm of vaccinations have progressively gained traction among some who are choosing not to vaccinate their children against serious diseases like measles. This year’s International Infection Prevention Week theme, “Vaccines are Everybody’s Business” highlights how, although the choice not to vaccinate may seem highly personal and individual, it risks the health of everyone. Indeed, there is no private choice when it comes to vaccines: they work most effectively when they are used universally. Universal vaccination has successfully eliminated deadly diseases like polio in the past—but the future of diseases we once considered dormant is now unknown.
The next time you get a flu shot or see a news story about vaccines, remind yourself to thank the infection preventionists around you. Your good health, and those of your loved ones, is in their adept hands.