More people than ever picked up infections while spending time in hospitals last year, it has been reported.

The number of hospital-acquired infections has doubled from 22,488 to 42,712 in just two years, the Daily Mail said.

The figures, from the NHS Information Centre, refer to all infections including superbugs MRSA and Clostridium difficile, plus others such as norovirus and E.coli.

Most of those who are affected by them are elderly, which means that their chances of recovery are very limited.

Meanwhile the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has said there havebeen 46 outbreaks of suspected norovirus in hospitals over the past two weeks, with 26 of these (57%) leading to ward closures or restrictions to admissions.

Seventeen of the cases, which occurred between 12 and 25 December, were then confirmed as cases of norovirus following laboratory tests.

Since the beginning of October, there have been 244 outbreaks reported, with 153 (63 per cent) leading to ward closures, and 125 (51 per cent) being confirmed as norovirus outbreaks following laboratory tests.

The HPA said the levels were within seasonal norms.

Earlier this month the Department of Health said the number of NHS beds closed due to norovirus-type symptoms has doubled within a week but was still within expected levels.

Its data for England showed that the average number of beds closed per day more than doubled from 720 to 1,545 between the weeks ending 11 December and 18 December.

Wards are closed in NHS hospitals as part of steps to control the highly contagious virus and stop it spreading between patients.

It is known to spread rapidly in closed environments such ashospitals, schools and nursing homes.

Symptoms include sudden vomiting, diarrhoea or both, atemperature, headache and stomach cramps.

The bug usually goes away within a few days.

Although people can suffer from norovirus at any time of the year, activity increases in the winter months, with most cases seen between October and April.

John Harris, an HPA epidemiologist specialising in norovirus, said: “Because the virus is highly contagious once it is in a hospital, closing wards to reduce the spread is often necessary and we commonly see this measure introduced at this time of the year.

“Hospitals should have a plan in place for managing an outbreak of norovirus and their infection control team will implement strict measures in order to help prevent the virus from spreading to other wards or departments in the hospital.”

The Department of Health said the figures were “misleading”.

“Because we are not complacent, we have introduced mandatory reporting of more hospital infections,” said a spokesman.

“That means that we have shone a light on the problems previously swept under the carpet. But patients should be confident that the measures we have taken will continue the downward trend in hospital infections.”