Published: 16/09/2004, Volume II4, No. 5923 Page 7

The Department of Health has expressed concerns over the accuracy of research behind tabloid claims that a number of acute trusts have fallen victim to rocketing rates of the MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) superbug.

HSJ has learned that the DoH's worries were sparked by running battles between the trusts and their tabloid accusers over the investigations, which claim they have astronomical rates of MRSA on their wards.

Some trusts have been frustrated in their attempts to get their hands on detailed reports of tests on swabs obtained by undercover reporters and sent for laboratory examination.

The tests, conducted by newspapers including The Sun, Sunday Mirror, Evening Standard and The People, were all sent to one man for analysis: Christopher Malyszewicz, founder of Northampton-based Chemical Solutions Consultancy, or Chemsol (see story, right).

Infection control experts at the trusts are concerned that Dr Malyszewicz counts bacteria which is a harmless cousin of MRSA in his results.

They claim this allowed him, and the newspapers, to say there are up to 300 times the 'acceptable' amount of MRSA in areas which the hospitals' own studies declared to be clear of it.

A DoH spokeswoman said it, too, was concerned that surveys like the ones in the tabloids did not necessarily separate common bacteria from MRSA. DoH officials visited Chemsol earlier in the year to look at the way Dr Malyszewicz was carrying out his work. The Health Protection Agency has also asked him to send over some of his samples for reference testing.

Angela Kearns, head of the HPA's staphylococcus reference laboratory, said: 'The laboratory methods used to detect MRSA in the environment are complex.

Findings such as Dr Malyszewicz's need to be confirmed by reference laboratories and the types of MRSA isolated need to be characterised to identify their possible origins, or whether in fact they are MRSA.'

On August 29, the Sunday Mirror ran an article with the headline 'Mop of death' in which it claimed a mop tested at Bristol Royal Infirmary was infested with '300 times the safe limit of MRSA'.

Following tests carried out by Chemsol on swabs from beds, fridges, chairs, toilets and doors, the newspaper claimed MRSA was 'rampaging' through the hospital.

But Chris Perry, chair of the Infection Control Nurses Association and nurse consultant and director of infection prevention and control at United Bristol Healthcare trust, said there was no DoH standard to indicate a safe level of bacterial contamination.

'There is a possibility that with these levels they are talking about, they have picked up the other bacteria, which is not MRSA but a cousin. This you would expect to find - every one of us carries it.

They do not cause infections like MRSA per se.

But they can cause infections when there is a foreign body introduced such as a drip or a hip replacement, ' she said.

HSJ has discovered that within the last month, Barking, Havering and Redbridge Hospitals trust has written to The Sun asking for Chemsol's analytical information, following a similar investigation at Harold Wood Hospital, Essex.

At the time of going to press, the trust had received no reply.

In May, the Royal Surrey County Hospital trust demanded to see a report of Chemsol's slides following a month-long investigation by the Evening Standard which claimed MRSA was present in 34 of 40 swabs taken. The trust was sent only a copy of the results, but has received no report on how they were compiled.

A statement by trust chief executive Matthew Swindells says:

'The methodology described has so many uncertainties that we are unable to ascertain the findings and we have not yet been convinced that MRSA has been truly isolated.'

An article in The People in the same month, with the headline 'Epidemic of the superbug', identified Alder Hey Hospital as having 17 times the 'danger levels' of MRSA. The hospital, which at the time had the third-lowest MRSA rate in the country, retested the areas in question and found no traces of the bug.The People published a clarification the next month.

North Middlesex University Hospital trust was the subject of a front-page story in The Sun in March with the headline:

'NHS killer bug shock: we find 80 times danger level of MRSA in hospital'.

Dr Yasmin Drabu, trust medical director and infection control officer, said she called in the HPA without giving staff time to clean the wards, and they found no trace of MRSA.

Sunday Mirror investigations editor Graham Johnson, who wrote the 'Mop of death' story, said: 'We could take our samples to any microbiologist in the world and they would come back and say NHS hospitals are filthy. [The story] is very responsible... the general quality of care in NHS hospitals with regard to basics like cleaning and food is far below what it should be.

'We just go in there and put it on the record and the hundreds of readers who phone in after we have done these articles say: 'are not you great, are not you great'.'