Hugh Pennington is a microbiologist and although he's officially retired he admits: "I have never worked harder in my life than I am doing right now. Bugs are my life and they are doing well." I'm sure there are few of us who haven't heard his opinion of bugs and superbugs.
In the news this week is the arrival of a new superbug labelled NDM-1, an antibiotic-resistant enzyme dubbed the 'new MRSA'. This is of interest to me because, when I contracted clostridium difficile in hospital a few years ago, it took a three courses of antibiotic treatment for the symptoms to subside. Luckily I was healthy before I was infected because I was able to fight from a position of strength but if I'd been ill prior to catching the bug, I hesitate to consider the outcome.
Now we have NMD-1, supposedly imported from the Indian subcontinent. Professor Pennington has shared his knowledge of this new superbug with the readers of the Telegraph this morning. The history makes interesting reading. Another expert in this field is currently surrounded by chicken crap, but when he's finished whatever he has to do with it - the mind boggles - he promises to give his opinion.
In the meantime, if you do have to attend a hospital for any reason, wash your hands at every opportunity. Soap and hot water is the only defence against infection. As Professor Pennington says:
It is clear that the NDM-1 gene had spread to different bacterial types. NDM-1 production is getting commoner; it is now the commonest kind of carbapenemase being detected in Britain. The only good news – and it hardly qualifies as that – is that there hasn’t been much spread in hospitals, yet.
What can be done? The most important action we can take right now is to make sure that hospital control procedures in Britain are as good as they can be. Stopping the spread of NDM-1 producers from patient to patient is a no-brainer. Keeping the numbers of the bacteria down will also reduce the likelihood of the spread of the gene to other organisms. Handwashing is still paramount as a way of interrupting transmission. Physically isolating patients is crucial.
Health “tourism” is here to stay. But, just as knowing where someone has been is vital in diagnosing a fever, the question also has to be asked of patients who have been in hospital abroad. It has been standard practice for years in Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands for the assumption to be made that patients who have been in hospital in Britain are MRSA-positive until screening test results have come back.