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Branson Advocates Testing Hospital Workers for Superbugs

December 24, 2008 05:28 PM
by Denis Cummings
Airline billionaire Richard Branson called for major changes in British hospitals to fight the spread of “superbugs,” but he has been criticized for being out of touch.

Branson Critical of British Hospitals

In an interview with the BBC, Richard Branson, billionaire chairman of the Virgin Group and vice-president of health charity Patients Association, suggested major reforms for National Health Service hospitals in the fight against “superbugs” such as MRSA.

“There have been some improvements, but the facts speak for themselves—and the facts are still horrific,” he said. “It feels like they have tinkered with the problem rather than really got to the heart of the problem. The hospitals are there to cure people. They are not there to kill people.”

Branson believes that hospitals should test hospital workers for MRSA, saying that possibly as many as 30 percent of workers carry MRSA. The tests are administered in Perth, Australia hospitals, where MRSA rates are kept to a minimum.

He also demanded greater accountability for hospitals that cannot stop the spread of infection. “The patient should have the right to know the track record not only of the hospitals, but the rate on wards, on departments, on surgeons, on clinicians,” he said. “And I also think if managers of hospitals are not obeying the rules that have been set by the NHS, those managers should be replaced.”

Branson’s comments come at a time when the spread of MRSA and C. difficile is decreasing in Britain. However, the Health Protection Agency warned, according to the BBC, “the figures mask large variation between different hospitals and some are not achieving the infection control they should be.” Furthermore, the spread of other superbugs, such as drug-resistant E. coli, is increasing.

Background: Superbugs

“Superbugs” are drug-resistant bacterial infections that include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and C. difficile. They develop in hospitals, where infections can spread easily between sick patients. Many of these infections are spread by touch, either person to person or through objects such as doorknobs, medical instruments, computer keyboards and toilets.

This year, the government instituted a £50 million “deep clean” of NHS hospitals to help stem the spread of infection. It also stressed improved personal hygiene for hospital workers, many of whom were not washing their hands enough during the day. This fall, the Department of Health announced that MRSA cases had dropped by half over the previous four years, due in large part to the improved cleanliness of hospitals.

While rates of MRSA and C. difficile are declining, gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli is spreading. The rate of E. coli infection tripled between 2000 and 2006, and doctors are having trouble finding effective treatments for it.

“It is possible that, in the near future, clinicians will be regularly confronted with the hospital types of bacteria causing infections in patients in the community, a scenario very similar to that of community-acquired MRSA,” warned medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases in a February study.

Opinion & Analysis: Branson’s comments

Branson, a flamboyant and sometimes controversial figure, has been criticized for his comments, as many writers believe that he is speaking on an issue he knows little about. The Guardian’s John Appleby believes that Branson’s criticisms of the NHS are unfair considering that “the reason that infection rates are falling is because the health service and its staff have taken infection control much more seriously.”

He calls Branson’s worker-testing idea “a possibility, but probably not cost-effective. And in any case, as long as staff follow existing hygiene and protective procedures there should be no problem even if they are, as is very likely, carrying a transmissible bug.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Paul Clements echoes Appleby’s thoughts, pointing out that much of the British public carries MRSA bacteria. “Unless you ensure everyone who enters a hospital is clear of Staphylococcus aureus, Branson’s plan is all but meaningless.” He advocates a continued focus on hospital hygiene, calling it the “cheapest and simplest solution.”

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