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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Action on superbugs
Staphylococcus aureus
The superbug Staphylococcus aureus causes disease (picture: Pfizer)
Doctors have been told they must cut down on the use of unnecessary antibiotics as a way to tackle the growing problem of drug-resistant "superbugs".

Health Minister John Denham announced a two-pronged approach to tackling the problem on Monday.

The NHS will be expected to collect and to publish data on the number of infections picked up by patients in each hospital in the country.

And an Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy setting out when antibiotics should be given to patients, and good practice on basic hygiene will be circulated throughout the health service.

A Controls Assurance Unit will also be set up to help NHS Trusts implement the new procedures.

The government is concerned that too many patients are picking up infections while in hospital.


The levels of hospital-acquired infection in the NHS are unacceptable

John Denham, Health Minister

A recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) estimated that 5,000 patients a year die from infections they pick up once admitted to hospital. It was estimated that hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) play a contributory role in another 15,000 deaths each year.

Superbugs are created when bacteria come into regular contact with antibiotics and evolve to combat their effects.

Experts believe that part of the problem is that doctors have been too ready to dish out antibiotics to patients who have minor illnesses from which they would recover naturally anyway given time.

Mr Denham said: "The levels of hospital-acquired infection in the NHS are unacceptable.

"We know there are wide variations in the measures taken by different NHS Trusts to tackle the problem and we believe some are doing much better than others in tackling the problem.

"We need a much greater degree of openness and better monitoring of the problem throughout the NHS."

Mr Denham said the Commission for Health Improvement and the Audit Commission would have the power to ask for and examine data on hospitals' success in fighting infection.

"I don't believe that the so-called 'superbugs' are unbeatable.

"With the right strategy in place, by providing national guidance, we can work to ensure that infections don't happen in the first place."

Vulnerable patients

Potentially-lethal "superbugs" such as methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can spread rapidly through hospitals, often affecting the most vulnerable patients.

The NAO report said HAIs cost the NHS 1bn a year, with 10% of all hospital patients affected at any one time.

Infected patients are seven times more likely to die than those who are not struck down.

Patients most at risk from MRSA tend to be hospital or nursing home patients who have just had surgery or have had tubes or catheters fitted which leave open wounds.

Victims can develop septicaemia and kidney failure and if the bacteria enters the bloodstream it can kill.

Experts have claimed there is an epidemic of MRSA infections in hospitals, with 3,110 known cases of the superbug last year.

The high rates of infection picked up in hospitals have also been attributed to dirty wards and poor standards of hygiene, in particular, doctors and nurses forgetting to wash their hands.

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See also:

22 Nov 99 | Health
Superbugs in the firing line
23 Feb 00 | Health
Hospital fabrics harbour bugs
25 Apr 00 | Health
Gene warfare against superbugs
17 Feb 00 | Health
NHS bugs 'kill 5,000 a year'
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