Health Minister Michael Mc- Gimpsey was last night urged to hold a full public inquiry into the spread of hospital superbugs after a report into the Northern Trust's Clostridium Difficile outbreak highlighted the impact of staff shortages on infection control.
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, deputy chair of the Stormont health committee, urged the minister to do "all in his power" to restore public confidence in hospital cleanliness in the wake of an interim report into the Trust's outbreak published yesterday.
The investigation by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), called 'Protecting Patients, Reducing Risks,' was ordered by Mr McGimpsey after the Northern Trust declared an official C.Difficile outbreak in January.
There have now been some 51 deaths in which C.Difficile was a contributory factor in Northern Trust hospitals since last year.
The report looked at the organisation and management arrangements for the prevention and control of C.Difficile. Mr Mc-Gimpsey has resisted calls for an public inquiry while waiting for the RQIA research to conclude.
Ms O'Neill said that the families of those who have died with C.Difficile " want and deserve answers".
"Public confidence in the handling of C.Difficile is at an all time low and that the only way to restore that confidence is through the transparency of a full independent public inquiry," she said.
"Elderly people are now cancelling appointments rather than take the risk of contracting a hospital-acquired infection."
The number of C-Difficile-linked deaths has jumped five-fold in Northern Ireland since 2001. The RQIA review team has completed its investigation into four of the five Health trusts' actions to reduce C.Difficile rates.
The review team has also gathered "substantial evidence" from the Northern Trust where work cannot be concluded until the outbreak is brought under control.
The report said: "The review team considers that there is a deficiency in the number of staff in key disciplines that are essential to good infection control practice across Northern Ireland."
More infection control nurses, microbiologists and antibiotic pharmacists are needed. Improved IT systems to record cases were also called for.
The document also highlighted that "high standards of infection control are difficult to achieve in old accommodation with limited isolation capacity ".
The report made a total of 36 recommendations, including requiring daily reporting of cases of C.Difficile. Others included:
- Each health trust should have a plan to deal with an outbreak and should review its number of single rooms for isolating patients.
- Regional guidance should be developed to allow GPs, care homes and hospitals to share information about cases.
- A workforce review should be undertaken to address shortfalls in clinical microbiology, biomedical staffing and recruitment to vacant posts.
- A region-wide antibiotic prescribing policy for hospital and community services should be developed.
Mr McGimpsey said he expected the team's final report by July but had introduced restrictions on hospital visiting and handwashing guidance as well as extra money to establish rapid response cleaning teams at all hospitals.
"It isn't possible to eliminate healthcare-associated infections completely but we can and must have a zero-tolerance approach to them," he said.