Six babies in a neonatal intensive care unit have been found to be colonised with the same strain of MRSA – leading to staff being tested and three being identified as carriers of the bacteria.

The babies, some of whom were premature, were all in the 25 bed unit at the William Harvey Hospital, run by East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust, at the same time. All six have undergone decolonisation treatment and three remain in the unit.

The first was diagnosed in late January and other babies in the ward were tested at that time with negative results. However, in March a second baby tested positive for the same strain and on 23 March four other cases were identified. All four of these babies had been in the unit when the first case was diagnosed and are thought to have the same strain.

The trust tested staff on the unit and three were found to be carriers of MRSA and started on decolonisation therapy. The trust also carried out a deep clean of the unit, introduced weekly screening of babies and ensured other children on the unit were cleaned daily with an antimicrobial wash. Affected babies have been nursed in a separate area and treated but admissions to the unit have continued.

Staff and children at the trust’s special care baby unit at the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Hospital were also screened after an infection control outbreak meeting on 27 March.

MRSA colonisation is different from MRSA infection. Colonisation is often limited to the skin, nose and eyes. However, if the bacteria invades the skin or deeper tissues and multiplies, the patient can become infected, which can be life threatening. Other people can also be infected through contact with someone who is colonised or through contaminated environments or equipment. Some strains of MRSA are resistant to common antibiotics, which makes patients harder to treat.

East Kent had six cases of MRSA infection in 2017-18 and had high rates of MSSA and E coli. In a report to the board, medical director Paul Stevens said this week: “The overall data suggests that we continue to have a problem with infection prevention and control and additional improvement actions are required.”