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Friday, 13 December, 2002, 07:53 GMT
Sharp rise in 'superbug' deaths
The MRSA bacteria (Pfizer)
The hospital "superbug" MRSA is responsible for an increasing number of deaths, researchers have found.

The number of death certificates which mentioned MRSA - methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - as the cause of death, increased from 13 in 1993 to 114 in 1998.

MRSA bugs have built up resistance to antibiotics commonly used in hospitals.

The report comes as doctors in Scotland report a case of "GISA" - a strain of Staphylococcus that has developed even more resistance to antibiotics.

The case, which led to the death of a patient in Lanarkshire, is one of only a handful of GISA cases in the UK.

MRSA can be passed through poor hygiene, such as staff not washing their hands in between treating patients.

Researchers from the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) who examined the certificates say although the numbers are relatively small, these were deaths which could have been prevented.

It's a lot of people to die from something that can be prevented by hand washing

Dr Natasha Crowcroft, PHLS
And they warn more recent figures could show the numbers have continued to increase.

Claire Rayner, of the Patients' Association, said modern antibiotics had made hospital staff complacent.

"The presence of antibiotics has made people lazy," she told the BBC.

"We've got to get back to an environment where hospitals smell of soap and antiseptics again, where doctors and nurses regularly wash their hands."

Earlier this year, the National Audit Office estimated infections acquired by patients while they were in hospital could be killing up to 5,000 people a year in England.

Around 100,000 could be infected altogether, costing the NHS 1bn, said the NAO.

Underlying cause

In this latest study, public health researchers examined over 6,700 death certificates which mentioned any form of the Staphylococcus aureus bug.

The proportion which mentioned as the underlying cause of death the drug-resistant version, MRSA - which can cause fatal blood poisoning or pneumonia - rose from 8% (13) in 1993 to 44% (114) in 1998.

Claire Rayner
Claire Rayner: 'It's about basic hygiene'
The proportion of certificates which mentioned MRSA at all rose from 7.5% (47) in 1993 to 25% in 1998 (398).

The researchers say the increase is unlikely to be explained by better reporting of MRSA infections.

Lead researcher Dr Natasha Crowcroft, a consultant public health doctor, told BBC News Online: "In 1998 there were a 114 deaths where MRSA was given as the underlying cause.

"It's not a huge number in terms of how many people die in the country every year.

"But it's a lot of people to die from something that can be prevented by hand washing."


Christine Perry, chair of the Infection Control Nurses Association, urged healthcare professionals to focus on the prevention of "all healthcare associated infections" and not just MRSA.

Health minister Lord Hunt agreed hygiene standards had slipped in hospitals over the past 20 years, but "much has been turned round".

He told the Today programme 60 million had been put into cleaning hospitals in the last year, power had been handed back to matrons on the wards and independent inspection teams regularly visited.

He said: "It seems that we're particularly affected because more susceptible patients are being treated than ever before, and advances in treatment are improving patient survival, which is good, but it does leave those patients more vulnerable to infection."

Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said the government had failed to focus on infection control.

"Patients catch super-bugs not from floors or walls, but from other patients and staff where procedures like hand-washing are inadequate."

The research is published in the British Medical Journal.

The BBC's Gill Higgins
"The bacteria is difficult to treat"
Claire Rayner, Patients Association
"The answer is very simple - it is down to basic cleanliness"
See also:

17 Sep 02 | Health
14 Mar 02 | Health
17 Feb 00 | Health
13 Dec 02 | Health
21 Nov 02 | Wales
08 Feb 02 | Health
13 Dec 02 | Health
13 Dec 02 | Scotland
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