NHS failures blamed for superbug rise in hospitals

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Rates of potentially fatal hospital superbug infections are continuing to rise because of chronic failures by the NHS to deal with the problem, a report published today shows.

Rates of potentially fatal hospital superbug infections are continuing to rise because of chronic failures by the NHS to deal with the problem, a report published today shows.

The study by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that dirty wards, poor hygiene among medical staff and financial pressures on NHS trusts meant hundreds of people a year were dying unnecessarily from bugs they contract in hospital.

Four years after it published its first, damning report on the extent of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) in the NHS, a follow-up study by the NAO has found that many of its original recommendations have still not been implemented.

Sir John Bourn, comptroller and auditor general of the NAO, said: "I am concerned that, four years on from my original report, the NHS still does not have a proper grasp of the extent and cost of hospital-acquired infection in trusts.

"The war against hospital- acquired infection must be pursued on many different fronts, including a more robust approach to antibiotic prescribing and hospital hygiene, instituting a system of mandatory surveillance and persuading all NHS staff to take responsibility for effective infection control."

The report was released as the Department of Health published league tables showing which hospitals are faring worst in their battle with the MRSA superbug. The figures, covering April 2003 to March 2004, showed that while some hospitals had made headway in reducing infections, others had got worse since the last set of figures was published in December. Overall infections caused by MRSA increased from 7,384 in 2002-03 to 7,647 in 2003-04, a rise of 3.6 per cent. But the report said the highest rates of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) were seen in some of the country's most prestigious hospitals. Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Trust in London had the highest MRSA rate at 0.45 cases per 1,000 bed days, followed by Addenbrooke's in Cambridge, with a rate of 0.38.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, said: "The publication of the latest MRSA rates, hospital by hospital, on the internet is an important part of giving patients more information about this problem. It is clear from these figures, and from the National Audit Office report, that some parts of the NHS have to do more to control this threat."

The NAO report says a lack of adequate reporting systems made it impossible accurately to measure the true scale of the problem. But it is estimated that one in 10 people contracts an infection while in hospital and that 5,000 people die each year as a result.

MRSA causes pain, suppurating sores in infected wounds, high fever and high blood pressure and can potentially be fatal. Those who survive can face permanent disability and the risk of amputation of infected limbs.

While many of the infections occur because sick patients are more vulnerable to infection, the NAO has estimated that 15 per cent of cases are preventable by better practices. This means that 750 deaths a year could be prevented if more stringent regulations were in place.

Data is available on the Department of Health's website at www.dh.gov.uk.

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