Symposium Honors Rutala’s Retirement

Bill Rutala is retiring from his administrative role at UNC Health Care. Emily Sickbert-Bennett will replace him.

Bill Rutala, left, is retiring from his administrative role at UNC Health Care. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, right, will replace him.

It’s not everyday a person is likened to Superman. It’s also not everyday a person retires from their 40-year career in infection prevention.

The William A. Rutala Retirement Infection Prevention Symposium and Celebration was held on Friday afternoon, April 28, at the Paul J. Rizzo Conference Center in Chapel Hill. Rutala, MS, MPH, PhD, is stepping down from his role as director of UNC Health Care’s Hospital Epidemiology, Occupational Health and Safety Program.

“I will continue conducting research,” Rutala said. “But I will also get to spend more time with my family.”

Emily Sickbert-Bennet, MS, PhD, will replace Rutala as director.

“Bill has been an incredible mentor to me and hundreds of thousands of infection preventionists and epidemiologists in North Carolina and beyond,” Sickbert-Bennett said.

Many of those trainees and collaborators were in attendance as the crowd of 150 people gathered to hear Rutala, and several others in the field, present the latest research on healthcare-associated infections. David Weber, MD, MPH, has spent the past 32 years working with Rutala at UNC. The two authored 200 publications together, a time-consuming task that inspired Weber to joke that he was Rutala’s significant other, not Rutala’s wife Donna. Weber began his presentation with a slide featuring Rutala as Superman.

“Bill is the world’s leading authority on sterilization and disinfection. He developed SPICE, the Statewide Program for Infection Control and Epidemiology, which has trained the infection preventionists at more than 90 percent of all NC hospitals,” Weber said. “What I like best about Bill is that he believes in evidence-based interventions.”

David Weber listed all of Rutala's impressive accolades, likening him to Superman.

David Weber listed all of Rutala’s impressive accolades, likening him to Superman.

Preventing Infections
Rutala opened the symposium with a presentation aimed at answering the question, “Can we prevent all infections associated with environment and medical devices in five years?” He listed MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and C. difficile (Clostridium difficile) as two bacterial infections that could be prevented if hospital rooms were sufficiently cleaned.

“Bacteria can live for days, weeks and months on hospital room surfaces,” Rutala said. “Only around 40 percent of these surfaces are cleaned upon discharge. And daily cleaning is done even less frequently. We call it trash and dash.”

Yet, several novel ideas to combat environmental pathogens are in the pipeline. Visible light disinfection, dilute hydrogen peroxide technology and self-disinfecting surface coatings are all being tested and tweaked, according to Rutala.

Another way patients contract an infection in a healthcare setting is through contaminated medical devices. Rutala has completed extensive research into the dangers that lurk on endoscopes.

“Endoscopes have billions of microorganisms on them after a procedure and the crevices in the instrument make reprocessing difficult,” Rutala said. “Endoscopes remain contaminated 30 percent of the time after one cleaning. This results in transmission of infection.”

Rutala said sterilization should replace high level disinfection of endoscopes. The need for improved sterilization technology is a solution he shared during a 2015 presentation to a panel from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Rutala also believes the development of single-use scopes that would be disposed of after each patient could also help eliminate infections from contaminated medical devices.

“Can we prevent infections associated with medical devices and the environment in five years?” Rutala asked at the end of his presentation. “Our passion will make this happen.”

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