Beware socialized medicine
Newborn babies at 90% of hospitals are carrying the superbug MRSA, according to a study which found that doctors and nurses are ignoring basic hygiene measures to combat the spread of infection. Fewer than half of doctors and 63% of nurses always wash their hands with antiseptic gels between patients, says the report. In some parts of the country only a third of hospitals have cleaners at night.
The findings by the Patients Association, which cover England's 28 strategic health authorities, will be a blow to Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, who has made tackling MRSA and other hospital acquired infections a top priority. In May Hewitt announced a code of practice for hospitals to ensure that hygiene standards are met. Katherine Murphy, director of communications at the association, said: "Washing your hands properly is not complicated. We now have alcohol foams and gels that are very easy to use. "Another basic step is ensuring that wards are clean, but our report showed that in some hospitals there is no access to cleaners in the evening. This is not acceptable. What happens if there is a blood spillage after 7pm?"
MRSA is now so rife in hospitals that in 22 of the 28 health authorities questioned babies less than one week old have been found with the bug. The infants could have contracted MRSA from their mothers, from other patients or from doctors and nurses. While most of these babies would have been carrying the bug in their noses or on their skin without it causing harm, they are at risk of it developing into an infection.
Hewitt's warning to hospital managers followed the Patients Association's Clean Hospitals Summit in April at which the actress Leslie Ash, star of Men Behaving Badly, criticised the government for failing to keep hospitals clean. Ash fell victim to MSSA, a variant of MRSA. At the two-day event the association set hospital trusts a "100-day challenge" to improve standards. At the end of August, when the 100 days were up, it carried out an investigation to find out if improvements had been made. The full results will be published at a follow-up conference in London next month.
The study also showed that hospitals are overcrowded. In 58% of hospitals bed occupancy was in excess of 95% and in 90% of hospitals the rate was above 85%. Government guidelines advise managers that it should be no more than 82%.
MRSA is now so prevalent in wards that babies of less than one week old have been found with the bug in 90% of hospitals. Last week two newborn babies had to be put in isolation at St James's University Hospital, Leeds after they were found to be carrying the MRSA bug. In February a two-day-old baby became the youngest victim to die in hospital from MRSA. Luke Day had been born healthy, weighing 7lb 7oz. But he died just 36 hours later at Ipswich hospital in Suffolk. Microbiologists said that a doctor or nurse was the most likely source of the infection.
Last December 14-week-old Connor Bull became one of the youngest known MRSA victims when he caught the infection at Leeds General Infirmary. Claire Wilkinson, his mother, had to scrub down before she could touch him. He fought off the infection after 19 weeks in intensive care.
Mark Enright, an MRSA expert at Imperial College London, expressed his disappointment at the failure of hospitals to take basic measures to improve hygiene. "If we are not even delivering on improved hand washing and cleaning of hospitals then we are not really doing very much in the fight against MRSA," he said.
Professor Hugh Pennington, a microbiologist and expert in hospital acquired infection, added: "This confirms that MRSA is a problem that affects babies and young children and not just older people and patients who have had a lot of surgery." The Department of Health said: "We expect hospitals to enforce strict standards of hygiene and cleanliness. All National Health Service trusts now have directors of infection control and teams to ensure good practice is followed. [And black is white too]
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