Page last updated at 15:24 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 16:24 UK

MRSA test for surgical patients

Hand washing is thought to be the best way to tackle MRSA

Patients in England are to be routinely screened for the superbug MRSA before they undergo surgery.

The Department of Health has warned that patients who refuse the swab test could have their treatment delayed - but will face no overt sanctions.

Ministers hope the measure will help cut the number of MRSA infections contracted in hospital.

Around 6-7% of patients admitted to hospital carry the MRSA bacterium harmlessly on their skin.

The bug only becomes a problem when it enters the bloodstream of a vulnerable patient.

Patients will be given the swab test in the days leading up to their admission to hospital, regardless of whether they are a day case or an inpatient.

A nurse or healthcare assistant will take a swab from the patient's nose, another from under their armpit and a third may be taken from an area like the groin.

It is anticipated that many of the 11-12m people who undergo planned operations each year in the NHS will be tested.

However, tests will not be carried out on patients who pose a low risk, such as those undergoing eye operations as day cases, or minor skin procedures such as removal of warts.

The results of the test will be back within a few days, before the patient is taken in for surgery.

If the test is positive, then patients will be given a five-day decolonisation kit with a cream to put in the nose, and a special shampoo and body wash.

Renewed efforts

Health minister Ann Keen, said rates of MRSA infection had been reduced by over 60% in recent years - but ministers were determined to drive down rates still further.

She said: "Our decision to screen elective patients for MRSA shows we have not taken our eye off the ball in our efforts to eliminate all avoidable infections."

Graham Tanner, from the charity National Concern for Healthcare Infections, said: "Patients and families should not be too worried about a positive screening - it is not a diagnosis of MRSA.

"Many of us carry MRSA bacteria around with us, and a positive screening should prompt a decolonisation procedure to remove the bacteria before surgery."

MRSA screening of hospital patients has been piloted in Scotland, where health minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that a national roll-out is likely in the near future.

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