Fife ‘superbug’ source escapes ongoing probe

c.difficile infection
c.difficile infection

A new strain of a deadly superbug - the first of its kind in the world - is exclusive to Fife, according to Cambridge scientists.

The clostridium difficile (C.diff) 332 infection, which caused three deaths earlier this year, has struck again for a fifth time.

The new superbug sparked a national health alert in May, when Health Protection Scotland (HPS) described the ‘332’ deaths in two ‘Scottish’ hospitals as being the first of their kind in the UK and worldwide.

However, NHS Fife’s medical director Dr Gordon Birnie has revealed that genome sequencing carried out in Cambridge determined the ‘332’ cases - which are linked to the prescribing of broad spectrum antibiotics - were contained to Fife.

Authorities have so far been unable to find a single source for the infection and work is ongoing to determine whether the cases are linked.

Despite enquiries from the Press, NHS Fife will not reveal which hospitals were affected.

A spokesman said: “The initial report published through HPS made clear that two hospitals were involved but, as we are legally bound to protect patient confidentiality, we are unable to comment further.”

The first two cases emerged in December 2012 and January 2013 and the third was identified in another hospital in March.

All three patients, who were severely ill, died following the C.diff 332 infection but in two more recent cases, one in August, patients recovered.

Dr Scott McLean, executive director of nursing, said: “NHS Fife investigates every caseand has very robust infection control procedures in place across all clinical areas.This, together with our success in limiting the use of those antibiotics which contribute to C difficile growth in the gut, has led to the current very low levels of CDI both in the community and in hospitals in Fife.”

The increasing emergence of superbugs - fast acting bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics - were the focus of a five-year “anti-microbial resistance” government strategy published this month.

Chief medical officer, Professor Sally Davies said: “There are few public health issues of greater importance than anti-microbial resistance in terms of impact on society. The harsh reality is infections are increasingly developing that cannot be treated.”

An HPS spokesman stressed the 332 strain did not change the existing level of risk to the public.

“C. diff is a bacterium that a small proportion of adults carry in their gut without any signs of illness,” she explained.

“It’s more common among hospital patients receiving antibiotic treatment, as they tend to ‘wipe out’ the natural bacterial gut flora which normally acts as a defence barrier against bacteria that are ingested accidentally. “It‘s passed out in infected faeces and can survive for a long time on any surface such as toilet areas, clothing, sheets and furniture.”