AS THOUSANDS of patients succumb to the potentially lethal superbug, MRSA, hospital managers are preparing for a flood of compensation claims which will see them dragged through the courts.
High rates of the bug - methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus - have been attributed to dirty wards and poor hygiene, allegedly due to staff failing to wash their hands properly between treating patients.
Last month, The Scotsman revealed that Scottish hospitals are facing a multi-million pound legal action from more than 50 patients who claim a lack of hygiene caused them to contract MRSA. Now a firm of Edinburgh solicitors has served a summons on Lothian University Hospitals NHS Trust - the latest organisation to be threatened with legal action - which is set to go all the way to the Court of Session.
Neil Waterman, the solicitor handling the case on behalf of the family of Alexandra O’Neil,
said: "The court action has been served on the trust ... and relates to the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The family is suing the trust over the loss of their mother.
"There are important political issues here because millions of pounds would have to be spent to bring these hospitals back up to scratch. By taking legal action, we can force them to improve standards."
Hospital infections are said to contribute to the deaths of about 5,000 patients in Britain each year, with the elderly and seriously ill being most at risk.
The Public Health Laboratory Service recorded more than 7,000 MRSA cases in England and Wales last year, compared to 4,767 in 2001.
More than 200 people a week in London and the south-east are falling victim to the virus, which can kill within hours, and an estimated 10,000 Scots are struck down by MRSA every year.
Mrs O’Neil, 57, was admitted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in July 1999, suffering from a badly fractured ankle.
After undergoing surgery, she picked up MRSA and died nine months later. Mrs O’Neil’s relatives believe the hospital was negligent because of its failure to halt the spread of the MRSA infection.
"The woman went into hospital with a fractured ankle after falling down some stairs. Nine months later, she was dead," said Mr Waterman.
"We would argue she contracted the infection due to a lack of hygiene and infection control. It all boils down to simple hygiene."
Last night, Ian Butler, the patient’s brother, accused the authorities of sweeping the issue under the carpet.
He said: "If this was a company, it would have the Health and Safety Executive down on it like a ton of bricks.
"This is a killer disease and it’s time that politicians got involved and sorted the problem out. If you go into hospital you don’t expect to die from a broken ankle. It’s absolutely shocking, and I believe my sister should still be alive today."
MRSA infects the wounds of those weakened by surgery or illness and rapidly spreads through the body, causing multiple organ failure.
Now judged a serious hazard in most hospitals, MRSA resists almost all antibiotics. Vancomycin, the drug of last resort for patients with post-operative infections, is effective in some cases, but there are signs that the bug is even developing resistance to that.
Dr Stephanie Dancer, a consultant microbiologist at the Scottish Centre for Infection and Environmental Health, believes that there is a clear link between poor hygiene and the virus.
She said: "When you have a hospital with poor hygiene, which is understaffed and over-crowded, it is a recipe for MRSA."
This is the latest in a series of claims involving patients who believe they contracted the potentially lethal bug while being treated in Scottish hospitals. It is understood that the trust is involved in three other MRSA cases and Glasgow Royal Infirmary is implicated in a further two.
The O’Neil case will hinge on whether the family’s lawyers can prove that MRSA was contracted inside the hospital.
Critics argue that the bug could have been picked up elsewhere, as one in four people in the community is said to be a carrier.
A spokeswoman for Lothian University Hospitals NHS Trust refused to comment on the case while it is the subject of legal action.
But last night, opposition politicians called for an immediate inquiry. David Davidson, the health spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: "There is enough research to show that this is a seriously damaging problem.
"We have been pressing the Executive to get involved with this for the last two years. The health minister must commission an inquiry."
Nicola Sturgeon, the health spokeswoman for the Scottish National Party, dismissed the Executive’s anti-infection policy as a dismal failure. She said: "I am not convinced that the infection-control policies are robust enough to minimise the risk.
"Hospital managers are not sorting this out and therefore negligence cases are inevitable."
The Scottish Executive confirmed yesterday that it is the responsibility of individual trusts to maintain high standards of hygiene, and an Executive taskforce was set up in January to tackle the problem.
Edinburgh Royal Infirmary has moved to a new site at Little France, on the outskirts of the capital.
Despite being the most expensive hospital in Scotland - built at a cost of 184 million - it has also been hit by MRSA.