Glasgow hospital virus strikes 300 miles away

Paul Kelbie
Tuesday 22 January 2002 01:00 GMT

A Stomach bug that infected 254 patients and staff and forced Glasgow's Victoria Infirmary to close was blamed yesterday for the closure of three wards in a hospital 300 miles further south.

A Stomach bug that infected 254 patients and staff and forced Glasgow's Victoria Infirmary to close was blamed yesterday for the closure of three wards in a hospital 300 miles further south.

Seventeen patients and eight staff at Birmingham's Heartlands Hospital have been infected with the "winter vomiting" bug, which has already prompted a full-scale hygiene investigation covering all Scottish hospitals.

Three wards at Heartlands had to be closed after the outbreak of the illness, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea, led to the introduction of infection control measures at the hospital. The bug was detected on 9 January.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said the Birmingham outbreak was an isolated incident in England. But he said that the bug was a common ailment that affected up to 1 per cent of the British population each year.

David Hallam, a spokesman for Heartlands Hospital, said the virus "could have come in through a number of routes, such as relatives visiting". He stressed that the outbreak had been brought under control.

The illness, which is rarely life-threatening, usually only lasts 48 hours but can be more serious if the victim is already ill or suffering from a depressed immune system.

At the Victoria Infirmary, where three patients died last week from an outbreak of salmonella, admissions and operations have been cancelled since Friday.

The extent of the outbreak was made apparent last Thursday, the same day that the hospital was forced to announce that three elderly male patients had died from salmonella contracted in the hospital. It has thrown the spotlight onto Scotland's creaking health service and the resources it has available to deal with hospital-acquired infections.

Although the country's health spending is above the European average and the target set by Tony Blair for the UK as a whole by 2005, the service available to patients continues to fall short of European standards. Last year there were more than 30 outbreaks of different viruses in Scotland's hospitals, even though the Scottish executive spent £1,059 per capita – compared to only £885 in England and Wales – on health provision.

As waiting lists have continued to grow by 8 per cent in the last two years, and the number of NHS beds that are available become steadily fewer, outpatients in Scotland have to wait an average of 57 days for treatment, compared to England, where the average is 51 days.

Although the country is on target to spend 8.5 per cent of its GDP on health by 2003, way above the 7.6 per cent target for the UK as a whole, senior health officials are concerned that too much money is being wasted because of political pressure to concentrate on waiting lists and times rather than basic hospital care.

Dr Andrew Walker of Glasgow University's Robertson Centre for Biostatistics estimates that hospital-acquired infections cause or contribute to more than 1,800 deaths in Scottish hospitals each year – which is more than those caused by road accidents, Aids and drugs combined.

"Official figures have consistently under-estimated the incidence of such infections in Scottish hospitals," Dr Walker said. "The actual cost of hospital-acquired infections in Scotland could be as high as £186m."

Dr Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, believes much of those costs could be reduced with better infection control and less incompetence from hospital managers. "This is not a new problem," he said. "We don't need any more research about what needs to be done. The procedures have all been around for about 100 years."

About 20 per cent of hospital patients acquire an infection and have to stay on average 11 days longer than those who do not – at an estimated cost of about £300,000 each.

But increased spending on measures to control infections would cost comparatively little and save millions of pounds a year, Dr Charles Saunders, the chairman of the British Medical Association's public health committee in Scotland, said.

"We could probably reduce the number of infections by a third if adequate resources, such as sufficient numbers of infection control nurses and improved hand washing facilities, were available," he said.

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