Surgeons investigated over super-bug death of patient

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The Independent Online

Five French doctors, including two of the country's leading brain surgeons, have been placed under criminal investigation for manslaughter after the death of a hospital patient infected by a "super bug".

The investigation represents a hardening of the attitude of judicial authorities to a persistent problem with super bugs - highly-resistant bacteria - lurking in clinics and hospitals.

Although the Paris case goes back to 1999, there has been a serious outbreak of infections by a new variety of super bug in hospitals in northern France over the past six months, causing 18 deaths. There are an estimated 800,000 such infections in French hospitals and clinics each year causing 4,000 deaths (roughly the same as the official number in Britain).

The problem, which exists in all countries, has been dramatised in France by the decision earlier this year to amputate the leg of Guillaume Depardieu, 32, the son of the actor Gérard Depardieu, who had struggled against a super-bug infection since an operation after a road accident eight years ago.

The younger M. Depardieu, who has been forced to give up his acting career, has started an association to support and campaign for super-bug victims.

The judicial investigation for manslaughter confirmed this week concerns the death in March 1999 of Frédéric Pradier, who was infected with a form of gangrene after an operation for a cerebral haemorrhage at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in south-eastern Paris. By a terrible irony, M. Pradier was himself a senior pharmacist at the hospital, and the chairman of its committee to combat "nosocomial" infections - diseases contracted by patients after they enter hospital.

A preliminary investigation by police and an investigating magistrate has indicated, according to leaks to the French press, that "serious errors" were made before and during the operation. Two leading brain surgeons, three anaesthetists and the hospital's chief pharmacist have been placed under formal investigation - one step short of a charge - for "involuntary homicide" or manslaughter. The organisation which runs all public hospitals in Paris is also being investigated. None of the medical staff has been named.

Infections in hospitals have always existed but the problem has been growing, in France and elsewhere, for two reasons, according to French experts. Operations are now conducted on older and more fragile patients, and the excessive use of antibiotics has led to mutations of resistant strains of bacteria.

M. Depardieu has denounced what he calls a "generalised hypocrisy" in the medi- cal profession, which he says tries to suppress debate on nosocomial infections.

Alain-Michel Ceretti, president of an association which defends the rights of hospital patients in France, said: "It is time that the authorities stopped saying that nosocomial infections are inevitable. They are not."

A lawyer for one of the accused doctors said there was nothing in the investigation that pointed to the responsibility of any one individual for M. Pradier's death. "We live in a society where we no longer accept that anyone should die, without someone being held to blame," the lawyer said.