Tories demand inquiry into fatal bug outbreak

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Ministers are under pressure to launch a full inquiry into the outbreak of a lethal new bug at one of Britain's most famous hospitals.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, demanded the Independent Healthcare Commission conduct an inquiry into the cases of Clostridium difficile at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Buckinghamshire.

He also called on the Department of Health to release full details of the first year's compulsory national survey of infections by C.difficile, which is linked to dirty wards and the overuse of antibiotics.

The Independent revealed on Monday that Stoke Mandeville had been hit by a new strain of the bug, which causes severe diarrhoea and spreads quickly from person to person.

Twelve patients have died and more than 300 have been infected by the new strain at Stoke Mandeville.

Yesterday, Mr Lansley expressed concern at The Independent's revelation that an expert in infection control at the hospital had resigned in protect at the failure of managers to control the outbreak.

Mr Lansley said: "Managers in the NHS are in a straitjacket of government targets when they should be free to meet priorities such as infection control.

"The report that the consultant microbiologist at Stoke Mandeville left in protest raises serious questions. The Healthcare Commission should conduct an external inquiry into this and identify whether targets are stopping necessary infection control arrangements."

The bug is thought to be endemic across the NHS. Voluntary reporting by laboratories showed there were 43,000 cases in 2004, an annual increase of 23 per cent. Hospitals across the country have reported rises in infections, leading to ward changes as the number of reported cases has soared from just 1,112 in 1988.

However, the voluntary scheme does not show the full extent of the problem and cannot produce a breakdown of cases to bear detailed analysis .

Details of the first full compulsory survey of the bug which started in January last year, have yet to be published, leading to calls for a full breakdown by NHS trust and individual department to be released.

Yesterday, Mr Lansley wrote to Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, asking for full details of the compulsory surveillance to be released so that doctors and patients can truly assess the scale of the problem.

Mr Lansley said: "The 2004 data exists and has been reported to the Department of Health but they have not published it."

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman also warned about the impact of Government targets. He said: "Ministers need to wake up to the fact that MRSA is not the only hospital bug around.

"Hospital infection control policies need to tackle all forms of hospital-acquired infections and not focus solely on MRSA just because it is such a topical political issue.

"This diarrhoea bug can mean elderly people are spending much longer in hospital than they need to and costs the NHS millions of pounds a year.

"The key problem is that, as there is a greater rush for more and more patients to be treated, standards of care can be compromised.

"There is insufficient time to clean beds properly between patients and overworked staff find it harder to meet infection control guidelines. There are simply not enough facilities and single rooms for staff to isolate infected patients properly. Legislation alone is not the answer".

The Department of Health said that details of the compulsory survey of C.difficile would be published later this year when analysis of the figures had been completed. A spokesman said the data would be broken down by NHS trust.

A spokesman did not rule out an inquiry but said it was important to deal with the outbreak before trying to learn lessons from the affair. He said: "We are taking this very seriously and have, alongside the strategic health authority and the Health Protection Agency, been assisting Stoke Mandeville in monitoring the situation and providing advice and expert support. We will then seek to look at the root causes and learn how to best manage outbreaks such as this in the future."

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