The government seems to be gaining ground in its battle against the hospital-acquired infections MRSA and Clostridium difficile, as the latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show significant declines in the number of reported cases.

MRSA bloodstream infections dropped 18% to 1,072 cases in the July to September quarter of 2007 from the 1,304 booked during April-June. Furthermore, the six-monthly rate between April and September last year was 1.24 cases per 10,000 bed days, marking a 21% decrease on the previous six months and a 30% drop when compared with the same period of 2006.

“This continued decrease in MRSA bloodstream infections is a major achievement against the seemingly unstoppable rise that we saw throughout the 1990s,” said Dr Georgia Duckworth, head of the Agency's Healthcare-Associated Infection and Antimicrobial Resistance Department. “Latest figures show a continuing downward trend, despite a backdrop of increasing workloads and complex patient needs,” she added.

And the picture looks just as bright for rates of C. difficile, which show a 21% drop in the number of cases (10,734) reported in patients aged 65 years and over in England in the third quarter. In patients aged two to 64 years, there were 2,496 cases, down 14% on the previous quarter.

“The significant decreases in MRSA and C.diff rates show how the NHS is committed to addressing infection control and how, with the right focus, it can deliver," commented Jo Webber, deputy director of policy at the NHS Confederation. "To ensure that infection rates continue to decline, a zero tolerance approach to infection must be embedded in the ethos of all NHS staff. Solutions need everyone – including the local community – to work together."

Political football
The issue of hospital-acquired infections has become somewhat of a political football, largely because it is so close to the voting public’s hearts as it represents an important benchmark of health service performance, and the government has recently announced a whole set of new measures to help reign in the spiralling number of cases.

Back in 2004, the former health secretary John Reid set the ambitious target of halving the rates of MRSA, then 7,700 for the year, by March 2008. But unfortunately, the government looks set to miss this target, as 2,376 cases have already been recorded for the first six months of the 2007-8.

According to a report in TimesOnline, the Department of Health recently announced that it will use figures from the April-June period to gage progress in meeting the target, effectively giving itself a three-month extension on the deadline and thereby allowing the current deep-clean of hospitals to be taken into account.

The move has sparked accusations from both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, which claim the government is shifting around the goalposts to make it look like it has achieved its target. “This is yet another example of the government congratulating itself while ignoring the detail,” shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley told The Press Association, adding: “They have to stop moving the goalposts to dishonestly meet their own targets. They have got to be honest with patients”.