Superbug ‘associated’ with 27 deaths in midwest, group says

HSE staff member alleges she has been victimised over whistleblowing activities

Irish Patients’ Association says  patients are worried over  threat posed by superbugs and overcrowding. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Irish Patients’ Association says patients are worried over threat posed by superbugs and overcrowding. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

A multidrug-resistant superbug was associated with 27 deaths in the midwest over a six-year period, the University of Limerick Hospitals Group has confirmed.

The group said the infection was not the primary cause of most of these deaths, though it was a “contributing factor” in three of them.

A HSE staff member has made a protected disclosure to Minister for Health Simon Harris about the deaths of 29 named patients who were multidrug-resistant and whose deaths were allegedly “associated” with University Hospital Limerick, The Irish Times reported on Tuesday.

The staff member has alleged she has been victimised for her whistleblowing activities.

Responding to these claims, the hospital group said it recognised the rights that staff have to make protected disclosures and would in no way try to undermine or penalise them.

The group has been “completely transparent” in how it has managed and reported CRE infection since it was first detected in 2009 and has escalated matters appropriately at national level.

Independent inquiry

The whistleblower’s call for an independent inquiry into the outbreak was supported by former independent TD for Clare James Breen, who nearly died after contracting an MRSA superbug infection more than a decade ago. Mr Breen said it was a disgrace that it took a whistleblower to “bring everything out in the open”.

The Irish Patients’ Association said it had raised its concerns with the HSE and the Minister’s office and was awaiting a detailed response. Spokesman Stephen McMahon said patients entering the system were worried over the threat posed by superbugs and overcrowding.

A spokesman for UL Hospitals Group said it was important to distinguish between patients who were infected with the carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) superbug and those who were colonised. Patients who are infected by micro-organisms present in the body suffer adverse symptoms while colonisation relates to the bugs living harmlessly on the skin or in the bowel, with no signs of infection.

However, carriers can serve as a reservoir for spreading infection in hospitals and nursing homes, he said.

Refurbishment

The spokesman also said the hospital has taken measures to control infection in recent years, including refurbishment of wards, deep cleaning and appointment of additional staff.

The HSE has been asked to fund a new 96-bed block to address the lack of adequate isolation facilities. New detections of superbugs dropped 40 per cent in the first six months of this year compared to the corresponding period of 2015, he said.

As reported by The Irish Times, Mr Harris told the whistleblower he had sought assurances from senior HSE staff that the Limerick hospital was managing the issue in line with national standards.

Asked whether he had received these assurances, his spokeswoman said protected disclosures received by the Minister were managed in accordance with legal requirements. “It would not be appropriate for the department to comment on such matters,” she said.

She said the Minister was aware of the challenges in tackling multidrug-resistant superbug infections in all hospitals, including Limerick. He expects the HSE to place particular emphasis on prevention and management of infections and on antimicrobial resistance in its service planning for next year.