MRSA cluster hits hospital, affecting 23 newborn babies
HEALTH authorities are desperately trying to find the source of an MRSA outbreak which has affected 23 newborn babies.
The MRSA superbug cluster has been discovered at a busy hospital maternity unit.
So far, health authorities have failed to find the source of the sustained outbreak at Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar.
The Irish Independent has learned that the first indications of the outbreak were discovered as long as seven months ago.
The number of newborns affected is well above normal levels and is being considered a "cluster" by health authorities.
Officials have admitted that they are mystified at the source of the outbreak.
An average of three babies a month are now testing positive for the bug.
The outbreak was only made public as the major hospital introduced stricter visiting rules for its maternity ward.
The infants tested positively for MRSA on their skin, which is known as 'colonisation'.
However, the bacteria would only become life-threatening if it was to enter the child's blood stream through a cut or open wound.
The HSE has stressed that the cases to date relate to colonisation only and insisted that no baby had become ill due to an MRSA infection.
It added that there were no current cases of babies with MRSA colonisation in the unit.
A spokesperson for the HSE said: "The increase in colonisation numbers started in March 2012 and we have since started screening all babies in the maternity unit, not just in the special-care baby unit. The numbers are sporadic and showing on average three babies per month."
Babies that have tested positive for the bug are being cared for in a separate room, away from the other newborns.
The hospital is taking other precautions to reduce the risk of the bacteria spreading to other babies, including using special washes and creams. It has also introduced stricter visiting rules for its maternity ward.
However, despite attempts to tackle the outbreak since March, seven months later it is still resulting in a higher-than-average number of MRSA colonisations.
The HSE spokesperson added: "The maternity department staff, supported by the infection-control team, consultant medical staff and hospital management, are reviewing possible causes and implementing control measures.
"Control measures, including increased screening, strict implementation of the visiting policy, environmental cleaning and enhanced vigilance have been put in place."
Children who are admitted to the Special Care Baby Unit are screened for MRSA on admission. They then undergo a weekly screening while in the unit. This was described as "standard clinical practice".
The spokesperson continued: "Sometimes we find a very small number of babies per month positive for colonisation following this screening.
"When a baby is found to be positive, they are cared for in a separate room, if possible, from the other babies and increased precautions are taken to reduce the risk of spread to other babies.
"Sometimes eradication therapy may be considered. This may mean a cream for the nose or special washes."
Tony Kavanagh, of MRSA and Families, said the number of newborns contracting the bacteria was growing.
"It's more common than you would think. We were shocked initially when we heard of newborns having the infection but it has become very common.
"This is a very serious bacteria that can hit anyone in hospital. It's not just the elderly that are at risk, it is every patient from a newborn up."
Mr Kavanagh said MRSA and Families is now seeking a meeting with HIQA officials where they hope to establish a system whereby a lay person will accompany HIQA officials during hospital audits.
"Mayo General Hospital has a bad reputation in terms of infection control. We need a return to full hygiene assessments and we need HIQA to make it happen," he added.
The protocol for the hospital is to isolate patients until three negative screenings have been recorded 72 hours apart.
A spokesperson for the HSE said there was no requirement for the hospital to inform the Health Protection Surveillance Centre of cases of MRSA colonisation.