MRSA: Government accused of dirty tricks

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The Government was accused of dirty tricks today after new details emerged of how it plans to hit a controversial MRSA target.

The Liberal Democrats and Tories hit out after it emerged the Government was taking into account reductions in the MRSA rate including the first quarter of 2008/2009.

In 2004, former health secretary John Reid said the Government would halve rates of MRSA by the end of March 2008.

But the Government has confirmed it will measure whether it has hit the target by looking at figures for April to June 2008.

It argues that using data prior to the end of March would measure a period before the target deadline.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said the Government was moving the goalposts.

He argued it was "no coincidence" that the time frame it had selected was after hospitals finish their deep clean programme.

He added: "This is yet another example of the Government congratulating itself while ignoring the detail.

"They have to stop moving the goalposts to dishonestly meet their own targets.

"They have got to be honest with patients. MRSA is a serious matter, so Labour should stop kicking it about like a political football to make it look like they are doing better than they actually are."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "This is disturbing evidence of the Government manipulating figures to hit a target.

"By shifting the numbers around in this way, they are far more likely to hit a target which had previously seemed out of reach.

"I will be writing to the Statistics Commission asking them whether this is a legitimate way of measuring performance against the target."

The news comes after figures out today suggested the number of MRSA and Clostridium difficile (C diff) infections is falling.

There were 1,072 MRSA cases reported in England during July to September 2007, down by 18% on the previous quarterly figure of 1,304 cases.

The six-monthly rate of MRSA bloodstream infections was 1.24 cases per 10,000 bed days.

This was for the period April to September 2007, and represents a 21% decrease on the previous six months, when the rate was 1.57 cases.

The six-monthly rate was also 30% down on the same period in 2006, when the rate was 1.77 cases.

The report, from the Health Protection Agency (HPA), also showed there were 10,734 cases of C diff in patients aged 65 and over in England between July and September 2007.

This was a 21% decrease on the previous quarter, when 13,669 cases were reported.

The figure also represents a 16% drop (2,087 cases) on the same period in 2006.

Among patients aged two to 64, there were 2,496 cases between July and September 2007.

This was a 14% decrease on the previous quarter, when the figure was 2,887.

The HPA warned that the figures should be interpreted with care as significant changes are being made to how cases of hospital bugs are reported.

Dr Georgia Duckworth, head of the HPA's Healthcare-Associated Infection and Antimicrobial Resistance Department, said: "This continued decrease in MRSA bloodstream infections is a major achievement against the seemingly unstoppable rise that we saw throughout the 1990s.

"Latest figures show a continuing downward trend, despite a backdrop of increasing workloads and complex patient needs."

As of January 2008, the rules over reporting C diff have been revised.

If the same patient tests positive more than 28 days apart, then these are reported as separate cases.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson welcomed the drop in infection rates.

He said: "These figures demonstrate that the tough and sometimes controversial measures which this Government is taking are having a real impact on rates of infection, cleanliness and on the safety of patients.

"The contrast between a Labour Government which is delivering real improvements for patients and a Tory Opposition which has opposed almost every new measure could not be sharper.

"Andrew Lansley will regret calling tougher actions on cleanliness and infection control a 'gimmick'."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The target is the end of March 2008 when we expect rates to have been halved, this has always been the case.

"To measure this we will look at the numbers in the subsequent quarter (April to June 2008) as using data prior to the end of March would measure a period before the target deadline.

"Achievement means cutting the number of infections from an average of 640 a month (2003/04) to 320 by the first quarter of 2008/09, and maintaining this progress.

"Evidence from Trusts that have made significant reductions shows that, with the right focus and effort, including senior management and clinical commitment, the target is indeed achievable.

"This new data from the HPA shows that we are on course to hit the challenging target we set back in 2004 and this is down to the hard work of NHS staff."

Murray Devine, head of safety at the Healthcare Commission, which inspects trusts on infection, prevention and control, said: "MRSA is clearly moving in the right direction and the signs on C diff are encouraging.

"However, in both cases there are too many people suffering from these infections. It is terribly important that trusts maintain the pressure."