HOSPITALS have been warned to step up their efforts to tackle a deadly superbug after new figures showed cases are on the rise again.
Scotland’s chief nursing officer has written to health boards warning them to be “vigilant” against Clostridium Difficile after the number of patients infected rose over the last six months.
C diff is a highly infectious stomach bug that can easily spread in hospitals, is particularly dangerous to elderly patients and can lead to serious illness and death. Huge efforts have been made in recent years across the NHS to reduce the spread, but new figures show that cases are beginning to creep up again.
Ros Moore, the Scottish Government’s chief nursing officer, has now written to the chief executives of every health board, warning them that prevention of the infection is a “national priority”.
Moore’s letter states: “We have seen huge success in the prevention and control of C diff infections. However recent surveillance has been showing a levelling of the previous downward trend. We must remain vigilant.”
Official NHS figures published by Health Protection Scotland reveal 365 cases of C diff among the over-65s between April and June 2012, which represents a 12 per cent rise in hospital bed days for those stricken with the bug compared to the previous quarter. There were a further 369 cases from July to September 2012, a rise of 4 per cent in terms of bed days.
Now health boards are being reminded to isolate all patients with suspected C diff, promote good handwashing and keep hospital environments clean.
At its peak four years ago, well over 1,000 cases of C diff in the elderly were being reported every three months but improvements in hospital infection control have helped bring the rates down. Despite this, there were 169 deaths in 2011 in which C diff was either the main cause or a contributory factor.
Dr Camilla Wiuff, a healthcare scientist at Health Protection Scotland, said hospitals are continually challenged by the infection, with new strains of C diff constantly emerging that are more resistant to treatment. Some strains of the bug can also spread far more easily than others.
Wiuff said: “Any case is one too many, so although we have had a reduction in recent years we still have a problem.
She added: “It’s difficult to say why. It could have something to do with the bacteria itself, and how they are spreading, and there is some discussion about whether some strains are coming into hospital from the community.“Bacteria are evolving all the time and when we get a new strain, the measures we take to control it may not be as effective.”
C diff lives harmlessly in the gut of many people but it can grow out of control if a patient has recently taken antibiotics that kill the “good bacteria” in the gut that normally block the infection. Symptoms can range from mild diarrhoea to a life-threatening inflammation of the bowel.
Older people and those who are already sick are more susceptible, which is why many cases occur in hospital. The infection can then be spread between patients if strict hygiene measures are not followed.
Margaret Watt, chairman of the Scotland Patients’ Association, said: “People do not go to hospital to get conditions that are worse than their own. Feedback from patients is that hospitals are still not as clean as they should be, and that is one of the reasons why C diff is creeping back. It must be eradicated.”