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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 21:52 GMT 22:52 UK
Drive to fight hospital superbugs
Health Secretary John Reid
Mr Reid is to call for the publication of hospital infection rates
Overseas experts are to be flown in to help the NHS battle hospital superbugs, the health secretary has announced.

On Monday John Reid published plans to tackle hospital-acquired infections, like the potentially fatal MRSA, that claim an estimated 5,000 lives yearly.

He has ordered all hospitals in England to display infection rates so patients can make informed choices.

Local patient forums will carry out hospital inspections four times a year, and make the results public.

Image of MRSA
MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) first appeared in the 1960s
Some strains are resistant to almost all known antibiotics
Cases have increased by 600% in the past decade
Cases are expected to double again in the next six years
Efforts to combat it cost the NHS 1bn a year
Mr Reid also announced that trusts will be given targets to reduce MRSA rates. Trusts judged to be performing poorly on cleanliness will be instructed to provide an action plan for improvement within three weeks, followed up by a re-inspection within six weeks.

Matrons will take direct responsibility for cleaning staff, and ensuring patients' views are taken on board.

New patient bedside phones will include speed dial buttons to alert staff to the need to deal with a hygiene problem.

There will also be an expert summit to discuss how best to tackle the problem.

Progress needed

The National Audit Office (NAO) is soon to report on hospital infections. It will compare the situation now to when it last reported four years ago.

Although previous efforts have been made to reduce hospital acquired infection rates, the government says it is still a problem and the NHS has not done "well enough" in tackling it in every hospital.

Dr Reid said: "Cleanliness is as important to the public as waiting times.

"Putting it at the heart of the NHS inspection regime and introducing a new target to cut MRSA, will ensure that the whole NHS gives this issue the same high priority that the public does.

"Because MRSA rates vary from hospital to hospital I want the whole NHS to learn from the best at home and abroad.

"So I will fly in experts from countries with low MRSA to advise the NHS on improving infection control."

Cuts blamed

The UK's largest health union, Unison, earlier welcomed the plans as encouraging a "quality" healthcare system but insisted hygiene could only be improved with more cleaning staff.

General secretary Dave Prentis said: "Today we have a third of the number of cleaning staff in hospitals compared to 15 years ago and it is patients who are paying the price."

The Conservatives have criticised the government for failing to successfully tackle hospital-acquired infections.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "I am concerned that, like all their past announcements, Labour's plans to tackle MRSA will amount to nothing.

"If you do not give hospitals real freedoms to respond to patients' demands, then hygiene levels are unlikely to improve.

"Labour's top-down management has failed for seven years - why will it work in the future?"

The Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow said: "Nothing ministers do can hide their abject failure to stem the rising tide of infections in the NHS.

"Today's announcement is clear evidence that ministers have not been listening to patients and have failed to make tackling superbugs a priority.

"Cutting infection is not rocket science. The NHS must re-learn the lessons Florence Nightingale taught over 100 years ago.

"Basic hygiene, good hand-washing, effective screening and isolation of patients with MRSA need to become second nature in NHS."

MRSA makes up just 44% of hospital acquired infections, but it is the focus of efforts to cut rates because it is resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Beverly Malone, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Giving power back to matrons and nurses for cleanliness at ward level is a very positive move.

"However, for hospital acquired infections (HAIs) to be tackled successfully, nurses must be supported, properly resourced and given the authority to make changes.

"Research has shown the reduction of HAI's is also greatly impacted by nurse staffing levels. This must be increased if we want to do more than scratch the surface and reduce the increasing risk of exposure to HAI's."

Your comments

I contracted MRSA during a hysterectomy in 1998. It took six months to get the all clear. I was in community Infection Control and there was no hurry to analysis swobs and correct treatment was frustratingly slow, revisits and re admission to reopen and clean wound meant the second operation was soon after first. I will have to have concussion and be in a 'life or death' situation before I go into the hospital again
Trudy Sharp, England

My mother was admitted to a hospital in March 2003 for major heart surgery on an Aortic Aneurism. She was not a strong woman physically, but had the mental strength of a lioness. She survived the operation and was indeed sitting up in bed within 24 hours of the operation. We were then told that she had contracted a 'bit of an infection' that had to be controlled. Over the next 2 weeks, she gradually faded away as, what we now know to be MRSA, took hold and killed her. My problem was that I felt the hospital were doing precious little to maintain a safe and germ free environment in as much as visitors were only required (by a small notice) to use an alcohol hand wash as they entered. No checks were made on people using it, and even less on visitors leaving. Once in the ward, we were not advised not to touch our Mother, or any equipment/chairs/door handles etc. after having touched her. Thus we were probably helping to spread the infection further, even into the public cafe and waiting areas.
Nick White, UK

I contracted a chronic infection during a routine vasectomy operation in a private well known hospital. The private hospital refused to acknowledge that I had an infection despite terrible pain and swelling. I was eventually admitted to another hospital with an acute infection that needed surgery of the scrotum. I caught MRSA in the testicle and scrotum. Some Medical staff treating me in a surgical ward didn't take any extra precautions about basic hygiene, even though I was known to have MRSA. I had an open wound and was lying in a ward with 7 other patients who recently had surgery. Needless to say, if I knew then what I know now I would have said something. It was 13 months before I recovered and I couldn't find a way to claim for any compensation as I couldn't work and lost a lot of income.
Mick Ward, England

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