Editorial, /

Surgical site infections are prevalent and damaging in Europe; a multilevel and holistic strategy is needed now

Brussels (Brussels Morning) It has been a turbulent year for millions of Europeans with COVID-19 making health a priority not just politically, but in everyday life as well. Meanwhile, other health issues are quietly impacting the lives of Europeans and it’s time to address them head-on.

As someone who is deeply committed to improving the health quality of care of EU citizens, and as the son of two doctors, I was deeply appalled to know the damage that something as preventable as surgical site infections (SSIs) has been causing throughout Europe. Mental and physical suffering and tens of thousands of deaths have ensued despite current efforts by European hospitals to thwart SSIs. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), 800,000 Europeans experience SSIs every year, making up around 20% of all healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). This frighteningly high figure could be halved, solely through successful implementation of international guidelines by practitioners, like other HAIs.


SSIs are often caused when patients become resistant to antibodies after undergoing surgery: a phenomenon called antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Such resistance is what makes patients who are affected by drug-resistant infections more likely to develop complications, leading to their demise. Even if patients survive their infections, the damage that they create will unfortunately lead to prolonged and unnecessary patient hospital stays, at the very least. Prolonged bed occupancy not only overburdens our already stretched healthcare systems but also the patients and their families.

We all need to play our role to protect and promote patient safety while decreasing the rate and burden of infections, especially in relation to AMR bacteria. That is why investing in a cohesive and strong European health system throughout the EU with good quality and harmonised health standards across all member states is so important.

To prevent, better manage and combat SSIs and stop the resulting traumatic suffering and death they cause, we need a multilevel and holistic strategy.

Standardised approach

Firstly, clear, coordinated, and standardised guidelines within a broader European legislative framework on infection control and prevention are needed to tackle this issue. Consensus should be built around evidence-based guidelines, such as those devised by WHO, and clear protocols should be defined.

The European Commission could facilitate the creation of an expert forum to adopt these guidelines, supporting their implementation around Europe, while avoiding  continuing disparities in our healthcare systems.

Including recommendations on HAI reduction in the European Semester could also be beneficial, to motivate national progress on their control and prevention. To those ends, the creation of quality standardised instructions and safety checklists could help implement guidelines and simultaneously reinforce accepted safety practices whilst promoting better communications among healthcare workers.

Moreover, developing harmonised educational and training standards on infection prevention and control for healthcare professionals as part of their national healthcare professional curricula from undergraduate level could also be an attractive policy action. Such standards could apply the current learning tools created by the WHO or the ECDC, for instance.

The increasing prevelance of SSIs could be dealt with swiftly if we employ a multilevel and holistic strategy and, therefore, significantly impacting the lives of thousands of Europeans.

From creating a European Framework to developing a European curriculum for infection prevention and control, we can start to claw back the damage caused by SSIs and create long-lasting improvements to the safety and care of European citizens.