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Hospital Superbug Fact File

Hospital Superbug Fact File

If you contract a hospital acquired infection, have you been the innocent victim of medical negligence, or have you been one of the unfortunate few to fall ill while in hospital?

In this article we explore hospital superbugs in more detail, taking an in-depth look at three different types of infection: MRSA, C Difficile and Necrotising Fasciitis. We will explain the nature of each of these illnesses, and will also suggest whether or not anyone is to blame when a patient contracts a disease in hospital.


MRSA is short for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. The type of bacteria that cause MRSA (called Staphylococcus aureus) is a common type of bacteria that can often be found on the skin, and in the nostrils and throat.

Some people will carry the bacteria around on the surface of their bodies without experiencing any problems. Some will develop minor skin/soft tissue infections such as boils and impetigo. However, more serious complications can arise if the bacteria actually manage to get inside the body normally through a break in the skin.

Symptoms of MRSA

If the bacteria do penetrate deeper inside the body, a person will develop what is known as an invasive MRSA infection. This will cause symptoms such as:

  • A fever
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Muscular aches and pain
  • Pain, swelling and tenderness at the site of infection
  • Generally feeling unwell

MRSA complications

An invasive MRSA infection can lead to further complications, particularly if the bacteria reach the bloodstream, causing blood poisoning (sepsis). Complications associated with MRSA include:

  • Septic shock
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Endocarditis (infection of the lining of the heart)
  • Pneumonia
  • Septic bursitis
  • Septic arthritis
  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)

Treating MRSA

MRSA can be difficult to treat because the bacteria have become resistant to widely-used antibiotics. However, ordinarily it can be successfully cured with a course of intravenous antibiotics. A combination of antibiotics may be required in order to achieve a positive result.

MRSA in hospital

If a patient develops MRSA in hospital, he/she will need to be transferred to an isolation room to prevent the infection spreading to other patients. MRSA is much more prevalent in healthcare settings because:

  • There is a large number of people in one space, meaning there is more opportunity for the bacteria to spread
  • Many patients are older and/or have a weakened immune system, making them vulnerable to infection
  • Many patients have a break in the skin through which the bacteria can enter, such as a surgical wound or a cannula

Because hospital patients are more at-risk of catching MRSA, everyone who is admitted to hospital should be screened for MRSA. This involves taking a swab of the skin and sending it to the laboratory for testing. If someone is found to be a carrier of MRSA, he/she will be treated with antibacterial wash or powder.

Is MRSA in hospital negligent?

MRSA has often been dubbed a hospital 'superbug' and have received a significant amount of press coverage. Certainly at one stage in the 1990s the infection was rife amongst hospital patients and was seemingly out of control.

Nowadays measures are enforced to ensure that MRSA is prevented as much as is reasonably possible. This includes screening every patient, maintaining high standards of hygiene, with regular hand-washing and cleaning around a patient's cubicle.

Even if these steps are taken, it is not always possible to avoid MRSA. Therefore if a patient does develop MRSA while staying in a healthcare environment, it will not necessarily be the fault of medical practitioners. The only way a claim may be made is if you can establish that poor hygiene was to blame, or you can establish that medical professionals failed to contain the infection (for example, by isolating a patient).

Failure to diagnose MRSA

Nevertheless, it will be negligent if medical professional fail to recognise the signs of MRSA and provide timely treatment. If a failure to diagnose MRSA causes a patient further harm, there may be grounds for a medical negligence claim.

C Difficile

Clostridium difficile is also called C Difficile or C Diff. It is an infection that affects the digestive system, causing diarrhoea, fever and stomach cramps.

Spread of C Diff

The C Difficile bacteria can live inside the bowel without causing any problems. Someone carrying the C Diff bacteria can pass it from their body via their faeces. The bacteria can then spread to other surfaces where it can survive for months. If another person touches a surface contaminated with C Diff, they too will become a carrier.

C Diff in hospital

In healthy people, being a carrier of C Diff is not an issue. However, if something upset the natural balance of bacteria within the gut, the C Diff bacteria will prevail, resulting in a C Diff infection. This will result in symptoms such as diarrhoea, with the severity of symptoms varying in each case.

The natural balance in the gut can be upset by medication such as antibiotics. The infection is also more likely to appear in those with a weakened immune system. For these reasons, C Diff is more common amongst hospital patients.

Like MRSA, C Diff can quickly spread throughout a healthcare environment due to the large number of people, and the presence of patients taking antibiotics and/or with a poor immune system.

Is C Diff in hospital negligent?

As with MRSA, a hospital patient who acquires C Difficile has not necessarily been the victim of medical negligence unless it can be established that the hospital failed to take reasonable steps to prevent/manage the infection.

But if medical practitioners fail to diagnose and treat C Diff in a timely manner, causing a patient further injury, there may be grounds for a medical negligence compensation claim.

Necrotising fasciitis

Necrotising fasciitis is a lesser known bacterial infection, but it is one that can affect hospital patients. It is an aggressive 'flesh-eating' disease that happens when a certain type of bacteria get into the body's soft tissues. Like MRSA, the body will get into the body through a break in the skin. This can be as small as a paper cut.

Symptoms of necrotising fasciitis

Once the bacteria have entered the body, they will begin to reproduce, causing the release of a poisonous chemical. This damages the surrounding tissue, disrupting the supply of blood and oxygen. When this begins to occur, the person will notice a severe pain at the site of infection which has no obvious cause. The skin will also be red and hot to touch.

As the infection progresses, the tissue will suffer so much harm that it will die. This is called tissue necrosis. Necrotic tissue cannot be restored and will ultimately need to be surgically removed. Therefore if a large area of tissue dies, a patient will be left with a significant defect.

Necrotising fasciitis in hospital

Some people will pick up the necrotising fasciitis bacteria outside of hospital, while others will develop the infection while staying in hospital as a patient. Most commonly, necrotising fasciitis will arise as a post-operative infection.

Just because a patient falls ill with necrotising fasciitis does not mean that there has been a case of medical negligence. However, the disease does depend upon a rapid diagnosis and immediate treatment. This is because the infection will spread throughout the body extremely quickly, causing a large area of dead tissue. If the bacteria reach the bloodstream it can lead to sepsis, septic shock and organ failure. This can be fatal.

Failure to diagnose and treat necrotising fasciitis

If a patient presents to hospital with necrotising fasciitis, or develops the infection in hospital, medical professionals must diagnose the problem and provide effective treatment within a matter of hours. If there is an unreasonable delay in the diagnosis and treatment of necrotising fasciitis, there will be grounds for a medical negligence claim.

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