CASES of a potentially deadly bloodstream infection spiked in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde last summer, months after a rare strain of the bacteria claimed three babies’ lives.

Health Protection Scotland said the above average rate of Staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia (SAB) which affected patients treated in hospital between July and September last year “needs to be looked at further”.

A total of 93 healthcare-associated cases of SAB were recorded across the health board during the three month period.

These were cases linked to the hospital environment - such as contaminated intravenous devices - and not contracted in the community.

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The incidence rate for the infection in NHS GGC - measured by the number of cases per occupied bed days - was 27 per cent higher than the average for Scotland.

NHS GGC was the only health board in Scotland with above average rates during this three-month period, although NHS Grampian was also flagged up by the watchdog over an unusual number of hospital-acquired E.coli cases.

Staphylococcus aureus is one of the most common causes of hospital-acquired infections.

The bacteria is routinely found on the skin and in the nasal passage of about one in four healthy people.

It is usually harmless, but occasionally causes skin rashes or sores and, in the most serious cases, enters the bloodstream where it can cause a life-threatening infection - especially in patients with weakened immune systems.

One of the most dangerous forms is resistant to the antibiotic, methicillin, and is better known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

In January 2019 it emerged that two extremely premature babies had died at the Princess Royal Maternity Hospital in Glasgow after contracting a rare strain of SAB.

In April, the same infection was linked to the death of a third infant at the maternity unit.

At the time NHS GGC said all three babies “were extremely poorly due to their very early birth” and that the infection had been “one of a number of contributing causes in their deaths”.

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The infections were caused by a type 11164 strain of SAB, previously only ever seen in China and Germany.

The strain was highly resistant to the two antibiotics that are normally prescribed to combat Staphylococcus aureus, and was also resistant to the skin cleaning agent routinely used in hospitals across the UK to kill the bacteria.

Dr Jennifer Armstrong, NHS GGC’s medical director described it as “a challenging infection to bring under control”, and said in March 2019 that all parents, staff, visitors and babies who entered the maternity unit would be screened for the bacteria “until we are absolutely certain that it is out of our hospitals”.

It is unknown whether any of the cases reported to Health Protection Scotland last summer were of the same 11164 strain.

In the 12 months to the end of September 2019, a total of 345 hospital-acquired cases of SAB were recorded across the Greater Glasgow and Clyde region, similar to the 340 recorded in the previous year.

There is no data to indicate how many of these were fatal, but a spokesman for NHS GGC said internal monitoring of the situation had shown a recent decline in SAB cases.

He said: “The safety of our patients is at the centre of all that we do which is why we have been closely monitoring the number of infections.

"We have taken a number of steps to reduce instances of healthcare associated infections relating to SAB since the noted increase in Q3 of 2019.

“Our most up to date local surveillance indicates an overall reduction of 26% in the number of such cases in the latest quarter compared to Q3 of the same year.

“One of the single biggest contributors to SAB infections was recognised as coming from instances where patients have intravenous devices in place.

"Following significant local quality improvement work, we have seen a 50% decrease in those occurrences, compared to the previous quarter.

"Work continues across NHS GGC acute hospitals to ensure the reduction in healthcare associated infection SAB cases thought to be caused by these devices, is sustained.”

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Meanwhile, Health Protection Scotland also said that a higher than average rate of hospital-acquired E.coli cases in NHS Grampian also “needs to be looked at further”.

Between July and September 2019, there were 74 patient cases traced to the healthcare environment. The rate was 39% higher than the Scottish average.

A spokeswoman for NHS Grampian said: “We are aware and acknowledge the data. This is being investigated locally. More recent results are within normal baseline levels.”