Page last updated at 18:21 GMT, Sunday, 13 July 2008 19:21 UK

Superbug vaccines 'within decade'

The government has set a target to halve MRSA rates by 2008

Vaccines against the two major hospital superbugs should be available within a decade, the government's chief medical officer for England has said.

In a report due out on Monday, Sir Liam Donaldson says immunisations against MRSA and Clostridium difficile could help to reduce the risk to patients.

The two infections were contributing factors in more than 8,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2005 and 2006.

Latest statistics show rates of both infections are falling.

Giving a preview of his annual report, which is due to be published on Monday, Sir Liam said a vaccine against C.difficile should be available within five years, and one against MRSA within five to 10 years.

Infection rates

Sir Liam told the Observer newspaper that vaccines against the bugs could be used in two ways.

"One would be protecting the individual, somebody who was going into hospital for a major operation," he said.

Sir Liam Donaldson
You might be able to get close to eliminating them with a vaccine
Sir Liam Donaldson

"The other way of looking at it would be to try to interrupt the chain of transmission - to study the pattern of infection in the community, in hospitals and nursing homes, and try to eradicate the pools of infection."

However, Sir Liam said infection control measures - including nurses washing their hands - would still need to be in place, since the threat of a new infection emerging would always be present.

"You might be able to get close to eliminating them with a vaccine. But if you didn't concentrate on hygiene measures, something else would come along to replace them," he said.

Ministers have made tackling bugs a priority, launching initiatives such as this year's 50m deep clean of wards.

MRSA rates have been falling almost consistently for the last two years - although they have recently shown signs of stalling at just above 4,000 cases per quarter in England.

Nonetheless, the government is confident it will meet its target to halve rates this year based on a 2004 baseline.

The number of cases of C.difficile, which can cause severe diarrhoea and inflammation of the bowel and is more common but less deadly than MRSA, has also shown signs of falling.

Infection rates are even higher in Scotland, while in Wales and Northern Ireland they are slightly lower.

Obesity and cancer of the gullet are another two themes of Sir Liam's annual report.

He told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that more research was needed into why Britain now has the highest incidence of oesophageal cancer in Europe.

Brown pledges superbug screening
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