Northern Ireland

C. diff superbug was 'one of most virulent' says expert

Antrim Area Hospital

The strain of C. difficile found in Northern Trust hospitals was one of the most virulent, an expert witness said.

Professor George Griffin was giving evidence to a public inquiry that opened on Monday into NI's worst ever hospital superbug outbreak.

The 027 strain is "highly contagious" and it would have been "a huge task" for staff to contain it, he said.

The inquiry at Antrim Civic Centre was set up after the deaths of a number of patients linked to C. diff.

Professor Griffin from St George's University, London, told the independent panel that C. diff can cause death by perforating a patient's colon. It can also contribute to a person's death by causing them to stop eating or to become dehydrated.

Opening the inquiry, Chairman Dame Deirdre Hine said the aim was to establish fact, not find fault.

"Our process will be essentially fair, inquisitorial and not adversarial in nature," she said.

"Our overall objective is to contribute to restoring and increasing the confidence of the communities served by the Trust in the safety, effectiveness and sensitivity of the services provided, especially in the care of frail and vulnerable members of the community."

Dame Deirdre said the inquiry aimed to increase understanding on the impact of hospital acquired infections and point to changes and improvements that might be made.

During the outbreak, families of loved ones were concerned that C diff was not being included on the death certificate.

On Monday at the inquiry, the Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride acknowledged that the outbreak had shown deficiencies in the system. This led him to issuing a document to the five health trusts instructing them to improve the detail of information that was written on the form, especially those deaths which had included a hospital acquired infection.

Set up by the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, in March 2009, it set out to establish just how many people died in the course of the outbreak either directly or indirectly as a result of the infection.

The time frame is between June 2007 and August 2008 as during that time C. diff infection levels exceeded the normal baseline rates within the Northern Health trust.

Media reports at the time suggested that figure was somewhere between 60 and 70 deaths - but many people, including families of those being treated in hospital, believe it is much higher.

Dame Deirdre also led the independent review into swine flu.

To date almost 200 people have contributed to the inquiry's work, including patients, their families, medical experts and health trust staff.

So far almost 100 people have provided witness statements and over 50 people are being invited to provide oral evidence to the inquiry.

Monday's hearing is significant as it allows families who lost loved ones to tell their side of the story. According to Sylvia Rossi, whose husband Ralph had C. Diff, it's time for the truth to come out.

"For visitors and patients it was obvious that something was terribly wrong in the ward," she said.

Image caption Solicitor Hilary Carmichael is representing 14 of the families

The hearing is expected to last three weeks.

The inquiry is expected to deliver its final report and a list of recommendations to the health minister before the end of the year.

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