Bug business

When Gordon Brown announced a £57m deep-cleaning blitz on hospital-borne diseases, it was dismissed by some as little more than an expensive publicity stunt that would achieve little more than making the government look like it was taking action on a high profile problem.

While there may be an element of truth to these criticisms, there’s no denying that the spread of hospital borne infections is one of the biggest problems facing the NHS. Indeed, between them, MRSA and Clostridium difficile are thought to have been contributing factors in around 8,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2005 / 2006.

Regular cleaning certainly has a role to play, but the spread of such diseases is a complex problem with huge challenges. MRSA, although the most well known, is not the only bug wreaking havoc in our hospital wards – and there is still much to learn about the different transmission routes of different bugs.

The science of deep cleaning itself could also do with a rethink. Current techniques often require entire wards to be emptied and this isn’t always practical. What’s really required is a technique that will kill bacteria without having to move out the patients.

And while the increasing use of bactericidal materials on critical surfaces has been much trumpeted – such materials are useless if, for instance, they take 12 hours to kill germs but are being used on a surface, like a tap , that is used every few minutes.

A somewhat more sophisticated response to the problem was launched this week by Trustech, the NHS Innovation Hub for the north west of England, which is calling for engineers from the medical industry and beyond to consider whether they have technology that could help halt  the spread of superbugs.

Under the nationwide scheme, dubbed the Smart Solutions programme, the NHS is looking beyond the medical industry at other sectors which might have something to offer.

From companies working in the sterile pharmaceutical and food industries, to the developers of clean room technologies used in manufacturing operations, to automotive coatings specialists, the programme’s aim is to leave no stone unturned in the search for useful new technology. It’s a win win situation. While providing our health service with valuable tools in the fight against superbugs, the programme also potentially offers a fast track for technology firms to become suppliers to the NHS, historically a pretty tough market to crack.

Jon Excell, features editor