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Beating the Super Bugs

Aug 21, 2008
Our medical expertise is quite extraordinary these days with access to phenomenal hi-tech wizardry that can look inside our bodies, microsurgery that can save limbs and increasingly effective drugs, and yet the biggest battle we have is against the so called 'super bugs' such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile, commonly know as C Difficile.

Even the most prestigious, state-of-the-art hospitals can fall victim to these headline-making horrors if good old-fashioned hygiene is not strictly adhered to. Hospitals, clinics and care homes should regularly deploy the type of cleanliness that the crisply starched matrons of the past put at the top of their list when it came to fighting disease including regular hand washing before and after dealing with a patient, thorough cleaning of the wards, clinical areas and toilets and ensuring the patient, their bed and the area around it is cleaned everyday.
The Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) first emerged in the UK in 1961. It is a form of Staphylococcus aureus (SA) usually harmless bacteria found in the nose or on the skin of around a quarter of the population. Most of the time it causes no problem, the only hint of its presence maybe the odd skin infection or boil which is treated with a dose of antibiotics such as methicillin. However over the last few decades some types of SA have become resistant to antibiotics and developed into super strains that are hard to treat the so called MRSA bugs.

MRSA once contracted is extremely difficult to treat and usually affects those who are already weakened by other medical conditions. It can cause blood poisoning, attack bone and flesh and cause infection in vital organs such as the lungs and heart.

The risk of serious infection is greatest in those who are weakened by illness or the frail and elderly. MRSA spreads easily usually via hand-contact, so strict hygiene rules are vital especially when dealing with open wounds or drips. The good news is that in England the number of MRSA infections reported in hospitals is falling, no doubt due to a vigorous campaign by Health Authorities and the NHS to ask staff to practice good hand hygiene with regular washing before and after dealing with patients, using disposable gloves to change dressings and use of alcohol based hand gels, all of which helps reduce cross infection.

Other factors that have helped reduce cases are screening patients on admission who are suspected of carrying MRSA without knowing it or showing symptoms. A simple swab of the nose, groin or open wound reveals whether they are colonised with MRSA and it is easily treated with antiseptic washes or powder applied to the skin. Thorough cleaning of hospital areas, isolation of infected patients and care to avoid cross infection all help in the battle against MRSA.

In the unlikely event that you or your relative contracts MRSA there are various treatments available. Infected wounds are often treated with a silver impregnated barrier dressing that destroys MRSA within 30 minutes. If the infection is inside your body then you may be treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. On average a patient infected with MRSA stays an extra eleven days in hospital.

Though we seem to be winning the war against MRSA another headline making bug is on the increase, Clostridium difficile of C Difficile. Another naturally occurring usually harmless bacteria, this one is found in the gut of around 3% of adults and around 66% of children. A dose of antibiotics can upset the delicate balance of the gut and allow C Difficile bacteria to flourish and produce toxins that cause watery diarrhoea and fever. Bacteria spores are spread through the diarrhoea and can survive a very long time in the open, on hands or on surfaces near the patient such as the floor, bedpans, toilet etc.

These spores can be killed by thorough cleaning using water containing a cleaning agent with bleach in. Those working with the patient must ensure scrupulous hand hygiene and the patient must be isolated as its highly contagious. Once identified C Difficile can be treated with specific antibiotics and probiotics to help re-establish the balance of flora in the gut. Most make a full recovery, but the elderly seem to be particularly susceptible where it can become a life-threatening illness. Over 80% of cases occur in those over 65 usually in healthcare environments like hospitals and care homes.

If MRSA or C Difficile affects you or a member of your family you should talk to a medical negligence specialist solicitor. Did staff wash their hands before and after dealing with you or your relative? Was the area regularly and thoroughly cleaned? Did staff ensure that that they wore disposable gloves when changing dressings? Was the patient isolated? Did you feel that the hospital or care home did everything they could to minimise the risk of cross-infection? It's only by addressing these issues that MRSA and C Difficile will become a thing of the past.
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