John Horam, Health minister, said in a Commons reply that the total number of cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was not "collected centrally", and the ministry had no idea of the number of cases in which the bug "contributed to or caused death".
He told Andrew MacKinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, that 177 English hospitals had "voluntarily" reported 19,385 patients affected by MRSA last year - up from 2,286 patients in 1992.
But Chris Smith, Labour's health spokesman, told The Independent last night: "The fact that the Government has no idea how many cases of this occur nationally is another example of their disregard for public health. You go into hospital to get better, not to get ill."
In a speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference in Inverness yesterday, Tony Blair said: "This is a government in a state of decay, utterly incapable of providing leadership or competence in the administration of the country's affairs."
Citing the example of the suppression of a report on abattoir safety, Mr Blair said: "The food industry is there to serve the consumer, not the other way around."
Labour plans to set up a consumer-oriented Food Standards Agency, reporting directly both to the Department of Health and what remains of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But with four elderly people admitted to hospital yesterday, after drinking water contaminated with the microscopic parasite cryptosporidium, Commons answers on the MRSA incidents showed that the nation's health problems go far wider than food and drink.
The official Public Health Laboratory Service told The Independent yesterday that while it had partial figures on MRSA cases, "death data is not available. Patients infected with MRSA are usually very ill anyway". "They may die with MRSA, but not of it," the laboratory said. That view appeared to clash with the statement made by Mr Horam, who told Mr MacKinlay yesterday: "It is not known in how many cases MRSA contributed to or caused death."
Professor Brian Austen, of the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, at present engaged in the early stages of developing a drug to counter MRSA, said: "People are being infected, and they are dying. If they do not have the figures on that, then alarm bells should be ringing."
He said that Whitehall's response was worrying. "MRSA can give rise to serious disease and can lead to death. It is responsible for killing people. It is usually associated with hospitals and weaker members of the community, but under the present scenario, people are going into hospital without it, and they are coming out with it."
The severity of the bug is shown by the action taken when some hospitals have been hit by it. Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces minister, told Mr MacKinlay this week that in one incident at the Cambridge Military Hospital in 1994, there had been a "widespread infection" of MRSA, all admissions had been stopped for more than a week, and all staff had been screened and treated with antibiotics.
A Department of Health working party report said in 1995 that MRSA "now affects more than 50 hospitals per month".
Mr MacKinlay told The Independent that the minister's attitude was "outrageous". He said that the Government did not even appear to have set up a mandatory screening for all patients going into hospitals. "My fear is ... it will have budgetary implications for the National Health Service unless something is done soon, and thoroughly."
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