Superbug linked to 17 deaths at hospital

STEPHEN PULLINGER A Norfolk hospital last night revealed it is fighting a deadly superbug after admitting that 17 patients had died there in four months.The deaths at Gorleston's James Paget University Hospital (JPH) since the start of December came after the patients - most of them elderly - contracted a virulent strain of clostridium difficile (C-diff).

STEPHEN PULLINGER

A Norfolk hospital last night revealed it is fighting a deadly superbug after admitting that 17 patients had died there in four months.

The deaths at Gorleston's James Paget University Hospital (JPH) since the start of December came after the patients - most of them elderly - contracted a virulent strain of clostridium difficile (C-diff).

Five others have had to undergo major bowel surgery, while another 11 are currently being treated for the bug in side rooms isolated from wards.

The figures contrast with the whole of last year, when the hospital had 11 deaths over the whole 12 months associated with C-diff.

Victims have nearly all been aged over 65 and a high risk factor is if they have been treated with certain types of antibiotics that kill common gut bacteria exposing them to the antibiotic-resistant C-diff.

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Tests completed earlier this month revealed the hospital is harbouring the virulent 027 strain of the bug, first detected in North America in 2001, which causes far more severe illness than the normal diarrhoea.

Since the problem was detected in January, bosses at the JPH have been liaising with the Health Protection Agency and other local health agencies, including GP surgeries, and giving advice to staff, patients and visitors.

Hospital chief executive Wendy Slaney said they had decided to make the issue known to a wider public to further help in the fight against the bug, which, from previous experience, could take several weeks to get under control.

Visitors were being requested to stick to visiting times, and adhere to rules such as only having two visitors at each bedside. The need to wash hands with soap and water was also being highlighted as normal hand gel outside wards was ineffective.

She said evidence from other hospitals where there had been outbreaks was that it could take three or four weeks to bring the problem under control, but she stressed it was “business as usual” and reassured the public everything possible was being done to combat C-diff.

Nick Coveney, director of nursing and patient services, said the JPH had systematically put in place a wide-ranging infection control programme, and its success had been shown by a 50pc reduction in the rate of the other main superbug MRSA.

He said: “Against this background C- diff is causing us major concern at the moment. We have traditionally had very low rates of C-diff but numbers are on the increase reflecting the national trend. And we have now had confirmation that we have the particularly virulent 027 strain in the hospital and wider community.”

Mr Coveney said the hospital had tightened infection control procedures as soon as it became clear, in January, that patients with C-diff were getting “much more complex and severe illnesses than the normal diarrhoea”.

It had immediately implemented isolation facilities using a dedicated ward and side rooms, introduced a policy of strict patient isolation and bed closures as necessary, continued to work with colleagues in the community, and appointed an extra 15 staff to the hospital cleaning teams.

“We have also invested an extra £400,000 on a deep cleaning programme using bleach which is an effective measure against C-diff,” he said.

Dr Ngozi Elumogo, director of infection control, said: “When we noticed the change in clinical severity we prepared an in-house culture that has now confirmed it as the hyper- virulent 027 strain that produces 20 to 25 times the toxins of normal C-diff.”

She said staff had stopped using the types of antibiotics likely to cause a problem.

Dr Elumogo said the 027 strain of C- diff could cause serious gut damage and other problems such as dehydration, leading to kidney failure.

ADVICE

The James Paget issued the following advice for anyone who is concerned about C-diff.

t Initially, patients can access the NHS Direct website at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk

t The next step is to contact the NHS Direct helpline on 0845 4647.

t The JPH Trust is also operating a helpline between 8am and 8pm today and again on Sunday. The number is 01493 453453.

t The number for the GP out-of-hours service is Medicom on 01603 488488.