An Ulster health trust said last night that the deadly superbug Clostridium difficile has been a factor in the deaths of 16 patients in recent months.
The Northern Health and Social Care Trust confirmed that the hospital-acquired infection has been recorded as a contributory factor on the death certificates of the 16 patients since around July last year.
Ten of the C.difficile linked cases were recorded at the Antrim Area Hospital while five happened at the Whiteabbey Hospital and one in the Braid Valley Hospital in Ballymena.
It is understood the patients affected were generally older, frail and suffering other medical complications which were the main cause of death.
The figures emerged yesterday after the Northern Trust officially declared an outbreak of C.difficile after a more virulent form of the infection was found.
A spokesman for the Trust said that there are currently 26 declared cases of C.difficile, "the bulk of them at the Antrim Area Hospital".
The other remaining cases have been detected at the Whiteabbey Hospital, the Mid-Ulster Hospital in Magherafelt and the Moyle in Larne.
The Trust's medical director, Dr Peter Flanagan, explained that an outbreak of C.difficile is declared when the number of cases increases above the normal level.
"WE would expect around eight cases per month. We currently have around 20 per month," he said.
"Clostridium Difficile Associate Diarrhoea (CDAD) has become a major challenge in providing healthcare in recent years throughout the world.
"A more virulent form of CDAD, ribotype 027, has been identified recently which is associated with a more severe and prolonged illness and has been cited as a contributory factor in a number of deaths. Ribotype 027 is confirmed within the Northern Trust.
"CDAD generally affects older, frailer people who may often have a number of other medical problems."
Noel Graham, chief officer of the Northern Health and Social Services Council, which represents patients in the area, said: "Infection of any sort acquired within a healthcare setting results in fear, distress and uncertainty for patients and close relatives and can prolong the recovery period.
"News of this sort increases anxiety for those already in hospital and also for those about to be admitted. The Trust has implemented a plan to deal with those cases identified and to control the level of future risk."
Mr Graham also highlighted the need for "relatives and visitors to pay heed and act upon the instructions given by the Trust and play their part in helping to keep the risk of infection spread as low as possible."
SDLP health spokesperson Carmel Hanna said hospital cleanliness is a top priority of the Stormont Health Committee which she sits on.
"It is absolutely essential that we get to get to grips with hospital-acquired infections. It is totally unacceptable that vulnerable patients on admission to hospital for treatment of illness can emerge in a worse condition because of hospital-acquired infection," she said.
The Northern Trust said it has a strategy to deal with the outbreak.
This includes nursing patients in isolation or in a dedicated cohort ward, one of which was which has now been established at Antrim Area.
Members of the public visiting hospital should wash their hands with soap and water before and after visiting, and are asked not to visit if they are suffering from any illness. They should preferably only visit their own relatives, avoid bringing children to visit, not sit on patients beds and cut down on the number of possessions patients have around their bed.
Visitors not visiting patients with CDAD should continue to clean their hands with alcohol gel.