If you've ever worried about British hospitals, here are some scary stats for you: In the last year 100,000 people who went into hospital got an infection there. Of those, 5,000 died.
Perhaps the question is not 'Should I worry about MRSA?' but 'How much should I worry?'
What is MRSA?
MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant or multiple antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Staphylococcus aureus (sometimes shortened to Staph aureus) are a group of bacteria which are very commonly found on the skin and cause infections. But there are many different types of Staph aureus. The particular type known as MRSA is causing increasing problems because, as the name suggests, it is very resistant to treatment with antibiotics. Even some of our most powerful antibiotics, such as methicillin, can't stop it in its tracks.
How do we control MRSA?
Richard Hammond spends a day at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge and learns about infection control. He helps out on a ward where in order to keep MRSA at bay, they treat every patient as if they have an infection. That means wearing aprons and gloves and washing hands between every patient contact.
Because MRSA is spread through contact, washing your hands could be a life-saver.
But Richard discovers that controlling MRSA is not just about washing your hands, it's also about cleanliness. The trouble is, you can't see MRSA, so how do you find out how clean or dirty your hospital is?
The team investigates
We selected 10 hospitals around the country with some of the highest reported rates of MRSA and carried out secret dipslide tests for bacteria levels. Our experts incubated the slides at 37 degrees - human body temperature - so that anything that showed up would be human-derived.
As MRSA is spread through contact, we concentrated our efforts on heavy traffic areas such as waiting areas, floors, toilets and corridors.
In order to check our test, we also took 'control' samples from other public areas such as trains, buses, tubes, bars, theatres and public lavatories. All the hospitals were dirtier than the control areas. However, of the hospitals we tested, one had contamination levels that were far higher than the rest - Queen Mary's in Sidcup, Kent.
So, we sent in an undercover reporter to work as a contract cleaner at Queen Mary's to investigate what was going on. Although the cleaning company, Sodexho, say they take training "very seriously", our man was given only 10 minutes of training before he was set to work on the wards.
Infection control was not mentioned once. He uncovered:
- Inadequately cleaned toilets.
- Built up dust and dirt in corridors, lifts and on wards.
- The presence of cockroaches around food storage areas.
- The failure to observe correct procedures with colour coded mops.
We also established a lack of knowledge about MRSA and infection control procedures among the cleaning staff and supervisors.
In response to our findings, Queen Mary's say that they take infection control and cleanliness very seriously. They say they have recently tightened procedures to include extra spot checks and fast-track fault reporting in order to ensure good levels of cleanliness and tidiness. They say that a recent NHS Patient Environment Action Team inspection has highlighted improving standards of cleanliness. They say they have an infection control team, bedside alcohol gel dispensers and hand-hygiene information leaflets around the hospital.
They also point out that the Trust is currently undergoing a £22 million refurbishment programme.
In their statement, contract cleaning company Sodexho say that they take their responsibilities very seriously. Sodexho say that they follow national directions laid down by the Department of Health and have strict procedures around the induction and training of all staff and the specific operation of cleaning duties.
They also say that they have recently organised a conference for all healthcare managers and supervisors which focussed on hospital infection.
A widespread problem?
Was Queen Mary's a one-off? We commissioned a survey of 555 hospital doctors - 62 percent said they didn't believe their hospitals were cleaned adequately.
So Richard met with the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, to find out how they're tackling the problem of MRSA in Britain's hospitals. Sir Liam identified MRSA as a key priority for the Government.
Sir Liam said: "This is now a very major priority for the NHS. It may not have been in the past and it may have been allowed to get out of control and away from us in the past but it won't in the future".
Should you worry about MRSA? Yes, we all should. But we needn't be worried about going into hospital.
Be aware, take control, wash your hands and tell your visitors to wash their hands. If you see something that's unclean, tell someone. If you think someone's about to treat you, and they haven't washed their hands, ask them to.
Back to the Should I Worry About homepage