No excuses for not beating the superbug

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The Independent Online

Even taking into account the huge numbers treated by the NHS, it is unacceptable that 5,000 people each year die from infections acquired in hospitals. Today, the Health Secretary, John Reid, will publish plans to lower the number of such hospital-acquired infections. These will include improving hygiene standards in hospitals, consulting experts from abroad, and encouraging patients to speak out if they think their ward is not clean enough.

Even taking into account the huge numbers treated by the NHS, it is unacceptable that 5,000 people each year die from infections acquired in hospitals. Today, the Health Secretary, John Reid, will publish plans to lower the number of such hospital-acquired infections. These will include improving hygiene standards in hospitals, consulting experts from abroad, and encouraging patients to speak out if they think their ward is not clean enough.

It is no surprise that this document will come out at roughly the same time as a National Audit Office progress report on how hospitals have tackled infections after a major study four years ago. Dr Reid is obviously keen to give the impression he has the problem well in hand, even if little effort seems to have been made to get to grips with the issue in the last four years.

It is also no coincidence that the Government's plans are heavily focused on combating methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), also known as the hospital "superbug". With its resistance to known antibiotics and frightening reputation, the superbug has the potential to put people off going to hospitals altogether.

Critics have rightly pointed to the relative success that other countries have had in containing MRSA. Infection rates in Holland, for example, are 50 times lower than here. This is partly because other countries have a greater degree of spare capacity in their hospitals than does the UK. If every bed on a ward is taken up, it is much harder to isolate an outbreak. But it is also because the Dutch are more diligent about taking swabs of suspected sufferers, thereby catching the infection early. They are also prepared to shut down wards if necessary.

The NHS should immediately implement such methods, and with less pressure on bed space, now that the Government has put so much money into increasing capacity over the last few years, there can be no pinning the blame on overcrowding. Nor can there be any cost cutting in hiring private cleaning firms. But the best lesson to be learnt by the NHS concerns washing hands and keeping wards clean. The superbug cannot thrive if hospitals create an environment in which it cannot spread.

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