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Health authority to hire more staff after C. difficile outbreaks

This photograph depicts Clostridium difficile colonies after 48 hours of growth.

A B.C. health authority under fire for its handling of a highly infectious superbug says it will hire more staff.

Dr. Nigel Murray, Fraser Health's chief executive officer, announced Friday that the health authority will appoint a senior medical director "who will take an important role in reducing the rate of infections that we've been hearing about."

Burnaby Hospital has been under scrutiny this week after a letter signed by eight of its physicians was released by the B.C. New Democratic Party. The letter, sent to Dr. Murray in January, claimed 84 patients died and hundreds more suffered serious complications following outbreaks of the bacteria Clostridium difficile between 2009 and mid-2011. The letter said infection rates at the hospital were two or three times the national average and the lack of control bordered on medical negligence.

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Fraser Health said Thursday it had confirmed 13 cases in which the bacteria was believed to be a contributing factor in a person's death. It said it was possible 84 patients died with some measure of C. difficile in their bodies.

Dr. Murray told reporters during a Friday teleconference that the senior medical director will report on prevention-control practices at all Fraser Health sites to ensure there is continuous improvement, and to ensure the practices are consistent with national and international standards.

When asked if Fraser Health would also hire more infection-control practitioners, Dr. Murray said, "We will be increasing our infection-control numbers. The exact numbers have yet to be determined."

Fraser Health commissioned an external report that was delivered last month and found the health authority's infection and control programs were under-resourced compared to other jurisdictions in Canada.

"My impression … was that [infection-control staff]are clearly dedicated to their roles, but also overwhelmed," stated the report, written by Dr. Michael Gardem. "Their days are spent 'putting out fires' and they are unable to work on more preventative activities."

The report made 13 recommendations. Dr. Andrew Webb, Fraser Health's vice-president of medicine, said Thursday the organization was already implementing 10 of the measures but still discussing the final three.

Dr. Murray said Friday the final three recommendations will also be implemented right away.

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In his January letter to Dr. Murray, pathologist Shane Kirby said Fraser Health's "ineffectual response" to the outbreaks – which led to unprecedented medical unit closures in July, 2011, and again in November – "could objectively be considered medical negligence."

Dr. Kirby wrote there were 473 serious cases of infection between 2009 and mid-2011 at the hospital. He did not say all 84 deaths were directly caused by C. difficile. He said there were questions about how many deaths were directly attributable to the bacteria, rather than simply associated with it.

A February report by the Provincial Infection Control Network of B.C. said 1,496 cases of C. difficile were reported in the first and second quarters of 2011-12. The report said 46.6 per cent of those were from Fraser Health. Surrey Memorial Hospital and Royal Columbian Hospital – both Fraser Health facilities – had high rates of infection during that period.

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