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MRSA, What is it? How do you get it?

Article First Published June 2005

MRSA: What is it? How do you get it? What can you do about it? Jeanne Davis

MRSA the superbug.

Superbug! It could be the name of a new cartoon character inflicting deadly damage on the evil forces of the planet.

In reality, MRSA is a bacterium – Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus – lurking in hospitals. And along with other hospital-acquired infections, it kills more than 5,000 people a year. The young and the old are the most vulnerable. During the recent election campaign, MRSA was a priority issue for people aged 45-65.

The fear is real. Newspapers headline stories daily – newborn dies of MRSA in intensive care unit; midlifer’s parent dies after recovering from a routine operation; midlifers themselves surviving the infection but permanently disabled.

How does it spread?

The bacteria enter the bloodstream through open wounds, through injections, through IV sites, through catheters. Bacteria thriving on the skin are easily transferred from one person to another.

There has been much hype from a campaign called Cleanyourhands. To many people, a cleaner hospital is also just a question of sweeping floors. If only it was that simple. Unfortunately, the bacteria thrive in countless other places: on surgical instruments, on dressings, on patients and visitors’ clothes, on nurses’ uniforms, in hospital beds.

At a recent meeting by the Patients Association there were a number of suggestions put forward on how to contain the bacteria. Contain is the operative word. The medical technology to effectively tackle the antibiotic-resistant bug does not exist. Dr. Mark Enright, senior research fellow at the University of Bath’s department of biology and biochemistry, told more than 1300 infection-control experts that the only viable way to kill off MRSA was to isolate sufferers. He added that so many patients now had the bacteria that there were not enough isolation rooms.

And he warned that emptying beds to allow them to be cleaned properly would push up waiting lists – a move that would run contrary to Government policy.

Obstructions to taming the bacteria

Sterilizing instruments would help tame the bacteria. But recent research showed that sterilization of Britain’s endoscopes, for example, is haphazard.

The research, among healthcare professionals, also revealed that five percent of those questioned didn’t clean their instruments between patients; more than half reuse the sterilizing fluid; many endoscopes never make it to the Central Sterile Department at the end of the clinic; and there are no uniform guidelines on who is responsible, or just what they should do.

Claire Rayner, President of the Patients Association, and a recent sufferer of MRSA, says: “If this is happening in a number of UK hospitals, it is inevitable that infections are spreading widely.”

Other examples for infection control were cited. There are bacteria-proof dressings to prevent complications in both post-operative and chronic wounds. These are available in some hospitals, but not all.

Nurses’ uniforms should be washed and disinfected daily. Like the clothes of other staff, plus patients and visitors, fabrics harbour the bacteria. Studies have revealed that one-third of hospitals have no facilities for washing uniforms. Staff take the uniforms home to launder. Home equipment may not be the most effective for decontaminating bacteria.

Future plans

These and many other possible solutions from the NHS staff, industry representatives, and patients who attended the Patients Association conference, will be collated in a working document, publicized as the 100-Day Challenge, to be presented to politicians, civil servants, and Trusts for their response. After 100 days, the Patients Association will return to these key figures to find how they have acted on the recommendations to reduce hospital-acquired infections.

Laterlife will report on the outcome of the 100-Day Challenge as soon as results are revealed. But you can use your patient power now to help in reducing cross- infection and improving hospital cleanliness.


1. Check your hospital’s cleanliness. Log on to  and follow the links for the PEAT (Patients Environment Action Team) to check how clean your hospital is. NB. This website has now been closed by the NHS. (April 2008)
2. Before a planned admission, take a long, hot, soapy bath or shower, without using heavily scented brands, and have an all-over scrub with a soft gentle brush or loofah. Clip your toe and finger nails (removing all nail polish) and wash your hair. Put on freshly-laundered underwear. All this helps prevent unwanted bacteria coming into hospital with you and complicating your care.
3. When preparing the items you are taking with you, such as newly-washed nightwear, dressing gown, slippers and so on, add packs of antiseptic hand-wipes together with a couple of bulldog clips (from most stationers) and some plastic bags. Use the wipes every time you go to the loo, and also before and after meals. Use a bulldog clip to clip an open bag to the edge of the bottom sheet and use it for your own rubbish. Give full bags to the ward cleaner for disposal.
4. When you arrive take a note of areas that are messy or dirty and point them out to staff. A clean and tidy environment not only keeps infection at bay, it looks better, makes all patients feel better and can get you out of hospital faster.
5. Arrange a ‘phone tree with family and friends. Ask one of them to be the person who ‘phones the ward staff for information on how you’re getting on, and then pass the news on to everyone else (e-mail is good for this!). It may not be of direct use against MRSA, but it will obviously save busy staff time which they could put to good use against the bug.
6. Ask visitors to coordinate their visits so there are only two people at the bedside at any time. The more visitors a patient has, the higher the risk of bringing in an infection from outside. Also, instead of coming straight from work, try to persuade them to go home and have a thorough shower or bath before coming to see you – again this reduces the risk of bringing infection in from outside.
7. Ask them all to use the hand cleaners that should be at the foot of each bed (as specified by the Government), as they arrive and before they leave. This can greatly help the fight against the spread of infection.
8. Try not to let any children be brought in as visitors. However much you want to see them, it’s better not to expose them to possible hospital infections or to bring their own coughs and colds into the ward.
9. Advise visitors not to sit on your bed. Not only uncomfortable for you, but another way to prevent infection reaching you. Remember even healthy people carry bacteria on their skin; indeed we all do! And if they have even the slightest sniffle or indications of a cough, ask them nicely not to come and see you.
10. When a nurse or a doctor comes to your bed to touch you - for example, to examine a wound or check you in some way – be prepared to ask whether they have washed their hands or used the disinfecting hand gel. It takes courage, but it’s your health that’s at stake.

Above all, never be afraid to ask questions, especially about your own condition, or to make valid complaints. It may be easiest to speak to the ward matron. Do it gently but firmly. Your complaints or comments on what happens in the ward could be of great value to others too.



laterlife interest

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