Infections are causing major problems in hospitals across the UK, and panic among patients. Health Correspondent Barry Nelson visits one trust in the North-East which is winnind the battle against the bug.

SCREAMING headlines about killer superbugs are causing widespread panic among patients. Not surprising given that every year hospital acquired infections cause around 5,000 deaths and cost the NHS £1bn in treatment costs.

But the reality in the North-East is that our hospitals have some of the lowest rates of the potentially deadly MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in the country.

Some of our trusts, notably Harrogate, York and North Tees and Hartlepool, have particularly low rates of MRSA cases. But even in our region, the bug can claim lives.

The large Newcastle Hospitals trust and the much smaller Bishop Auckland General Hospital are among 50 NHS trusts which had five or more MRSA-related deaths during 2002. And even in one of the best trusts in the region - North Tees and Hartlepool - unlucky patients can have a nightmarish experience.

When Clare Poulton booked into the trust for a major operation on her spine in February last year, she hoped she would be out of hospital in a few days. After a seven hour operation to remove a prolapsed disc at the base of her spine she should have made a full recovery, but after she was discharged it was discovered that she had a serious wound infection.

"It was confirmed as MRSA. It attacked the fluid in my spine and then went to my brain," says Clare, 33, who lives in Hartburn, Stockton.

Her condition deteriorated and doctors began the fight to save her life.

"Basically, I nearly died twice," says Clare, who has made a full recovery after intensive antiobiotic therapy and will be helping the trust preach the anti-infection message to NHS staff at a regional conference next month.

Lesley Wharton, infection prevention and control nurse at North Tees and Hartlepool, takes up Clare's story, which was part of a lecture she gave to the new crop of junior doctors this week.

"Clare ended up back in hospital suffering from MRSA-related meningitis and MRSA-related septicaemia, or blood-poisoning," says Lesley. Her condition was so serious she had to make nine further visits to the operating theatre.

After several months in hospital it was decided that she would have to be transferred to a more specialist neuro-surgical unit in Leeds. She pulled through her treatment at Leeds and after a few weeks of rehabilitation she was allowed home.

Within a few weeks she was readmitted with severe anaemia because the high levels of antiobiotics needed to kill the MRSA infections throughout her body had severely depleted her white cell count.

Lesley uses Clare's story to persuade staff to take infection control message seriously.

"It was an extreme case but it just shows that we have got to keep on top of things," says Lesley, who is one of a team of infection prevention and control specialists at the Teesside trust.

You could almost forgive the serried ranks of junior doctors for groaning as the familiar "how to wash your hands properly" graphics are flashed up on a big screen. But Lesley makes no excuses for hammering home the message that thorough hand washing is the key to infection control.

"One in ten patients acquires an infection when they are in hospital which means that in our 800-bed trust at any time, we will have 80 patients with hospital acquired infections. That is not a number I am happy about," says Lesley.

Experts say that better hygiene could prevent many of those infections

"It is not rocket science. It is very simple," says Lesley.

During her lecture she flashes up a portrait of 19th century Austrian surgeon Ignaz Semelweis, the daddy of all infection control. His experiments with using chlorinated lime as an antiseptic handwash proved that the death rate at the Vienna maternity hospital where he worked could be reduced from 11 per cent to as low as one per cent.

His ideas took a long time to be accepted but with the range of cleansing products now available - including gel dispensers at the entrance to every ward - there is really no excuse for not washing your hands between patients, argues Lesley.

Even in a hospital which prides itself on cleanliness, a recent random survey in the trust's canteen showed that half of the members of staff had traces of bowel organisms on their hands.

"What are you putting in your mouth with your sandwich? You must protect yourself as well as your patients," Lesley tells her audience..

Senior house officer Dr Kevin Etherson says that the awareness of infection control has increased "quite dramatically" in the last few years.

"There are certainly alcohol gel dispensers everywhere in this trust. We all know that infection control is a big problem for the NHS," he says.

Bev Reilly, lead infection prevention and control nurse at the trust, says when new patients are being admitted, nursing staff have to reassure families about the risk of hospital infection. "There has been a real scare about MRSA which has been whipped up by the tabloid newspapers," she says.

"While the hand washing message is relentless at North Tees and Hartlepool, we had to accept that it will probably be impossible to completely eliminate MRSA," says Bev. "No matter what you do, you can't prevent all of it. About 30 per cent of us have the staphylococcus aureas organism living on our bodies quite happily. It is only a problem when it gets into the system of a sick or vulnerable patient."

There are a variety of reasons for the rise of drug-resistant varieties of bacteria, including poor hygiene, more advanced surgery techniques and the over-prescription of antibiotics.

The MRSA bug normally enters the wounds of hospital patients weakened by disease or injury and is especially dangerous after surgery. That is why hand washing is strictly observed in areas such as critical care, where even visitors have to comply.

Bev is delighted that the trust has one of the best records for MRSA prevention in the region, but she says the credit goes to everyone.

"It is a lot of hard work and credit is due to everybody at the trust, from the estates department to cleaners and matrons. Everybody takes it very seriously," she says.

Later this year the trust will issue all doctors and nurses with portable alcohol gel dispensers, which can be attached to a belt. Pioneered in the York trust - which saw a reduction in MRSA cases - the dispensers are expected to be gradually introduced into most NHS hospitals in the next 12 months.

It's an extra measure, which should help to ensure that the North Tees and Hartlepool trust continues to bear down on bugs, and that patients can feel confident once again that their health will improve in hospital, not get worse.