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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 12:43 GMT
UK top of superbug league
lab worker
Resistant infections are on the rise
Infections caught in British hospitals are more likely to involve drug-resistant bacteria than anywhere else in Europe, says research.

According to figures released by the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System (Earss), the rate of "superbugs" is "alarmingly high" in the UK.

Catching a drug-resistant infection means it is more difficult to treat with certain types of antibiotics, and for many patients, this can mean a longer stay in hospital and delayed recovery.

Some particularly weak patients could even die as a result.

% of MRSA infections drug resistant
UK 46.1%
Israel 44.1%
Greece 38.6%
Sweden 3%
In the first six months of last year, 46.1% of all Staphylococcus aureus infections tested in a selection of UK hospitals and labs were positive for drug-resistant bacteria.

MRSA is a well-known bacteria known to produce resistant strains.

The next worst European country is Greece, with 38.6% testing positive.

Some European countries such as Belgium reported just over 20%, and the lowest proportions were found in northern European countries such as Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, where fewer than 3% were resistant.

'Lives at risk'

Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow claimed that the high figures could be attributed to poor hospital hygeine.

He said: "NHS hospitals must ask themselves searching questions about these results.

"There are still too many cases of poor cleaning and hygiene practice. Poor standards are putting people's lives at risk.

"Just getting NHS staff to pay attention to the basics such as washing hands could make a real difference."

A National Audit Office report published two years ago suggested that "hospital-acquired infections" in general were costing the health service 1bn a year and causing thousands of deaths.

A recent change in the reporting system for resistant infections has meant a 33% rise in cases.

Antibiotic abuse

Drug-resistant bacterial strains are created in hospitals because not only is there a large population of weakened patients with open wounds to infect, but the use of antibiotics is widespread.

A course of antibiotics tends to weed out weaker strains of bacteria by killing them off, and promotes the evolution of strains that have the ability to resist the treatment.

Over time, particularly if antibiotic courses are not completed, the resistant strains become dominant in hospitals.

A spokesman for the Public Health Laboratory Service said that while hygiene was vital, there were other factors which encouraged the growth of superbug strains.

She said that the UK had been unlucky to develop two particularly virulent strains, which had spread rapidly in comparison with strains in other European countries.

She added: "The methods used to collect the data may also be varying from country to country, which might influence the results."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The Government takes the issue of hospital-acquired infections very seriously and believes infection control and basic hygiene should be at the heart of good management and clinical practice in the NHS.

"Higher rates of infection do not necessarily indicate an infection control problem in a hospital - this could be due to a higher numbers of vulnerable patients and the number and type of invasive and high-risk procedures that may be carried out."

See also:

17 Feb 00 | Health
NHS bugs 'kill 5,000 a year'
28 Sep 99 | Health
Curb on antibiotics
21 Jan 02 | Health
Controlling hospital infection
21 Dec 01 | Health
Infectious diseases on the rise
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