Pest control expert David Cross on how pests get into hospitals and spread infection
The cleanliness of most NHS hospitals in England is threatened by frequent invasions of rats, fleas, bedbugs, flies and cockroaches, a report claims.
Figures released by the Conservatives show that 70% of NHS Trusts brought in pest controllers at least 50 times between January 2006 and March 2008.
Vermin were found in wards, clinics and even operating theatres. A patients' group said the situation was revolting.
But health chiefs played down fears the infestations could lead to disease.
The figures were obtained by the Conservatives under the Freedom of Information Act, with every hospital asked to reveal how often pest controllers had visited over the two-year period in question.
If these hospitals were restaurants they would be closed down and out of business
Of those that replied, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust topped the table, with more than 1,000 incidents, and five other trusts passed the 800 mark. All the respondents had reported some pest problem in the two-year period.
Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust said that, as the fourth largest in England, it was likely to encounter more pest control problems, and might be recording incidents differently to other trusts.
While most infestations involved non-clinical areas, some trusts reported problems nearer to patients.
One had wasps in a neo-natal unit, and flying ants on the main wards, while another reported rats in their maternity unit, and wasps in operating theatres.
A children's A&E was infested with flies, and main wards were also home to mice, silverfish, biting insects and beetles.
Other common problems included bedbugs, fleas and cockroaches.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Labour have said over and over that they will improve cleanliness in our hospitals, but these figures clearly show that they are failing."
Both the Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) were sceptical of suggestions by the Conservatives that the presence of insect infestations could help spread infections among patients.
MOST PEST CONTROL VISITS
Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust: 1,070
Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust: 898
Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust: 857
Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust: 855
Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust: 813
Barts and the London NHS Trust: 801
York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust: 690
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust: 658
Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust: 450
East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust: 416
Source: Figures obtained by the Conservatives for January 2006 to March 2008
A spokesman for the HPA said: "In countries with good standards of healthcare, the possibility for insects or pests to transmit infections in hospitals would be very remote.
"In the UK, wounds are treated appropriately and dressings applied to ensure good hygiene and prevent infection."
Ivan Lewis, the health minister, said the Conservatives had exaggerated the problem, and "talked down" the NHS in order to score a political point.
However, a spokesman from the Patients Association was unconvinced, saying: "Such findings are truly revolting.
"How can patients be safe amid bedbugs, fleas and rats? These findings reveal what happens when money is taken away from where patients expect to see it spent.
"If these hospitals were restaurants they would be closed down and out of business."
The responsibility for monitoring hygiene in the NHS falls to the Healthcare Commission, and the expert leading its healthcare infection programme, Christine Braithwaite, said that it had received "negligible" numbers of reports about the threat posed by vermin.
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