The true scale of Britain's hospital superbug problems emerged yesterday as a leading hospital trust admitted that a "hypervirulent" infection had claimed the lives of at least 49 patients -- and possibly as many as 78 people -- in the space of nine months.
The superbug, Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) -- which can cause severe illness and death in patients who have undergone surgery -- appears to be at unprecedented levels. It has turned into a more virulent strain, ironically as a result of antibiotics commonly prescribed to fight other infections. The increase in cases is partly due to dirty wards, but also to a shortage of beds. The bacterium has also become more deadly because it has mutated genetically, becoming resistant to other treatments.
Three hospitals in the city of Leicester admitted on Saturday that the bug is likely to have caused 28 patients' deaths and contributed to another 21 since the beginning of this year. A further 29 suspicious cases have been referred to the coroner. One of the affected hospitals lies in the constituency of Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who has tried to prioritize infection control within the tax-funded National Health Service (NHS).
It emerged last week that at least 20 patients are thought to have died during an outbreak in Kent earlier this year as a resilient strain of C. difficile spread across the country. The Healthcare Commission, the NHS's independent inspection body, is to hold an inquiry into the outbreak at Maidstone Hospital, where 136 patients were diagnosed with the infection over a three-month period.
According to the commission, C. difficile is the major infectious cause of diarrhea acquired in UK hospitals. It can also lead to fevers, severe inflammation and death in around 5 percent of cases. More than 51,000 patients in England were found to be carrying the infection last year.