More Than 51,000 Patients Aged Over 65 Catch C Difficil

The number of elderly patients infected with the potentially-fatal Clostridium difficile soared by 17.2% last year in England. A total of 51,690 people aged 65 and over caught the hospital-acquired superbug, according to new figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Across England 60% of the 173 hospital trusts reported a rise in cases of the infection in 2005/6, with 15% seeing a “significant” increase. Cases of the bug, known as C diff, had already doubled in the three years to 2004/5 to 44,107 cases – with 2,247 of these causing deaths.

The rise may be partly due to increased reporting. But levels of the infection, which mainly affects the hospitalised elderly on antibiotics, are also rising in line with an ageing population.

As levels of C diff escalated, MRSA levels dipped slightly – but not enough to indicate that hospitals will meet the Department of Health’s five-year target. While the number of cases of the superbug decreased by 2% – from 7,233 in 2004/05 to 7,087 in 2005/06 – the government wants levels to be halved by 2008. So far they have only slipped by 11%.

Georgia Duckworth, head of the healthcare associated infection department at the HPA, said: “The fact [MRSA] isn’t still going up is very good news but you might ask: what does this mean in meeting the target?” Yet she added there were “encouraging signs” in curbing the infection. Levels of MRSA – which caused 1,168 deaths in 2004 – have decreased by 350 cases in London hospitals, the worst affected area, and in Yorkshire and the Humber.

C difficile is a hospital-acquired infection which usually causes diarrhoea but can lead to fevers, severe inflammation, and death in around 5% of cases. Older people are particularly at risk, but the figures showed a rise in younger age groups, particularly 45-64. In all, a quarter of all cases of C diff occurred in under-65s.

Treatment is by two antibiotics, vancomycin and metronidazole, but patients are still vulnerable to it recurring. As with MRSA, a blood infection that can cause fever, septicaemia and organ failure, hand washing by doctors and nurses is essential to prevent the spread of infection.

Yesterday’s statistics coincided with the Healthcare Commission report into the fatal outbreaks of C diff at Stoke Mandeville hospital. Professor Peter Boriello, director of the HPA’s centre for infections, said outbreaks of the nature and severity of the Stoke Mandeville case were uncommon, but no one could guarantee it was a one-off.

A DoH spokeswoman said new legal powers would allow ministers to penalise trusts that did nothing to tackle poor infection rates.