Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Hospital ‘superbug’

Is MRSA a threat to children?

A new report has warned that infection rates for the 'superbug' methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are sky-rocketing among children in the UK - since 1990, infection rates have increased by 19 times. While MRSA is normally harmless, in a minority of patients it can lead to a condition called bacteriaemia - which can cause food poisoning, and may be fatal for vulnerable patients. Earlier figures suggested a 15-fold increase in fatal cases among adults during a similar period.

This is a classic case of highlighting relative rather than absolute increases in risk. In 1990, there were four cases of MRSA in children; in 2001, there were 77. Many of these cases are premature babies who are already weak, and taking antibiotics to ward off other potential infections. It would be best if such figures were used by health authorities to quietly monitor the situation, and act to reduce infection rates where possible. The figures don’t warrant banner headlines.

Even among adults, MRSA is not particularly common. The worst affected hospital in the country, the North Middlesex, has an infection rate of 0.3 cases per 1000 'bed days' - meaning that for each day a patient spends in hospital, they have a roughly one-in-3000 chance of contracting the disease.

There is no doubt that National Health Service (NHS) hospitals have their problems. As one consultant-turned-patient noted in the Guardian in 2003, overworked staff often don't wash their hands or clean equipment between patients, and ward cleaning standards are appalling. Patients have every right to expect hospitals to be especially clean, yet they are frequently filthy. The hospitals with the lowest MRSA figures have rates little more than one-tenth those of the worst, suggesting that management practices and hygiene standards have a significant part to play.

It is telling that MRSA is flagged up as a 'superbug'. Whether it is SARS, avian flu, Ebola or MRSA, today’s society is always looking out for the next superbug - infections that are either particularly contagious, nasty or difficult to treat. The chances of actually being struck down by any of these diseases remains slim. The fuss about superbugs says more about fearful and vulnerable mindset of the twenty-first century, than it does about the powers of Staphylococcus aureus and co.

'I was gobsmacked by the filth', by Leyla Sanai, Guardian, 21 January 2003

MRSA superbug hits more children, BBC News, 22 March 2003

'Superbug' crackdown is launched, BBC News, 5 December 2003