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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 February, 2005, 09:10 GMT
Nasty clones causing MRSA problem
Image of MRSA
MRSA costs the NHS 1bn a year
The UK's MRSA problem may be due to the emergence of highly contagious clones of the superbug, says a scientist.

The emergence of two particularly nasty versions of MRSA coincides with increasing hospital superbug infection rates, says Dr Mark Enright.

The Bath University scientist believes government efforts should focus more on screening for and isolating patients with these strains.

The Department of Health defended its infection control policies.

We should have clean hospitals but that is a side issue to the MRSA problem
Dr Enright

Last year it set a target to cut rates of MRSA bloodstream infection by half by March 2008.

To achieve this, strategies to improve hospital cleanliness and infection control are being employed.

There is a big push for better hand hygiene among staff.

Matrons have been given direct responsibility for cleaning staff, and ensuring patients' views are taken on board.

New patient bedside phones are being introduced that include speed dial buttons to alert staff to the need to deal with a hygiene problem.

The government has also been seeking advice from the world's leading infection control experts to discuss how best to tackle the problem.

Last year the number of MRSA infections in the UK jumped by 3.6% to 7,647.

Three-year target

Dr Enright believes the government's measures will not be enough to hit the ambitious target three years from now.

"No one has halved a national MRSA rate ever and we don't know how to do it.

We are determined to leave no stone unturned when it comes to the fight against MRSA
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health

"I'm not very confident this is going to work.

"We should have clean hospitals but that is a side issue to the MRSA problem."

He recommended more extreme measures, such screening and isolating patients with the nastiest strains of MRSA, clones 15 and 16.

He said these two clones account for 96% of MRSA bloodstream infections in the UK and were beginning to spread to other countries.

They were more transmissible than other 15 strains of the bug that have been isolated, allowing them to spread from patient to patient, or via hospital staff or equipment, easily.

"You might only need to isolate one in 10 MRSA cases to stop these outbreaks starting," he said.

One can't say absolutely, but the correlation is very striking
Dr Alan Johnson

But he acknowledged that this would require "a politically unacceptable level of resource and lengthen hospital waiting lists" in the Society for General Microbiology's publication Microbiology Today.

He also said there had been "an unacceptably low" amount of government spending on research into the causes of the MRSA epidemic started.

The Department of Health said it was working with scientists and researchers to ensure it had the very latest information on the cause, spread and effect of MRSA.

A spokeswoman said: "We have called for proposals on new areas of research, funded as part of the 3million dedicated to developing effective infection control practices in hospitals.

"We are determined to leave no stone unturned when it comes to the fight against MRSA.

"MRSA infected patients are treated in isolation wherever possible, and this is one of the areas that has been identified for further research."

Health Secretary John Reid told the BBC extra investment in the NHS would enable hospitals to expand their capacity.

This would reduce the need to push patients through the system as quickly as possible in crowded conditions, and thus the potential for spread of MRSA.

Dr Alan Johnson from the Health Protection Agency, said it was the mid-1990s that MRSA started to increase up to the current rates.

"The time scale in which we saw this increase does tie in quite closely with the emergence of the 15 and 16 clones.

"The Health Protection Agency documented the emergence of these strains in the mid-1990s.

"One can't say absolutely, but the correlation is very striking."

Learn more about the MRSA bug

'Clean yourself' advice on MRSA
26 Jan 05 |  Health
NHS targets 'to blame for MRSA'
15 Jan 05 |  Health
Q&A: MRSA 'superbugs'
13 Dec 02 |  Health

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