A huge rise in deaths linked to the superbug MRSA in just over a decade has been revealed in official figures.
The number of death certificates that name the infection as a “contributory factor” has soared from 51 cases in 1993 – the first year in which records were kept – to 1,629 in 2005, a 30-fold increase.
Experts and campaigners believe that even this figure is only the tip of the iceberg because many hospitals try to avoid listing MRSA as a cause of death if they can find alternative explanations.
Ministers admitted the scale of the rise after being questioned in the Commons last week. Officials sought to explain the figures by saying that many deaths involving MRSA were those of “patients who were admitted to hospital because they were already seriously ill with another condition”.
Three years ago when John Reid was the health secretary, he pledged to halve the MRSA rate by 2008. In January, however, a leaked memo revealed not only that the deadline would not be met but that the target might never be achieved. The memo admitted that a certain level of MRSA was unavoidable, but could not specify what that level was.
Britain has one of the worst MRSA rates in Europe, ranking only above Malta, Romania, Cyprus and Portugal.
An increasing number of patients are contracting the deadly Clostridium difficile infection in English hospitals, according to the Health Protection Agency’s latest figures.
The agency said 55,681 cases were reported among patients aged 65 years and over in 2006, representing an increase of 8 per cent in a year.
The agency said that despite high rates infection across England, there were signs that rates of C. difficile were “slowing down”, as compared to the 17 per cent increase in reported cases between 2004 and 2005.
The latest MRSA bloodstream infection figures, also out today, show that there were 1,542 cases reported in England from October 2006 to December 2006, down 7 per cent on the previous quarter (July 2006 to September 2006), when there were 1,652 reported cases of bloodstream infections caused by MRSA.
The government’s strategy for halving the number of hospital superbug infections was in disarray yesterday after a leaked internal memo to Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, revealed doubt as to whether the target could ever be met.
Liz Woodeson, the director of health protection, warned Ms Hewitt that the three-year target to halve MRSA infections by April 2008 was likely to be missed. “Although the numbers are coming down, we are not on course to meet that target and there is some doubt over whether it is in fact achievable,” she wrote in October.