According to hospital authority figures, Hong Kong public hospitals reported a new case of superbug infections every 18 minutes in 2013. More than a tenth of the cases led to a blood infection that put patients at risk of developing life-threatening sepsis without prompt treatment.
The statistics show an overall 15% increase in three major types of superbug infections since 2011. They underline the threat from superbugs, which were branded a “global emergency” in a recent World Health Organization report.
Hong Kong University microbiologist Dr. HO PAK-LEUNG, who presented the figures at the Center for Health Protection’s recent hand hygiene campaign launch, said that the alarming speed at which superbugs spread in public hospitals was a serious concern, particularly in view of Hong Kong’s aging population.
In 2013, a total of 22,936 new patients were infected by one of the three major superbugs: Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamase (ESBL), Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) or Carbapenem-Resistant Acinetobacter Baumannii (CRA), up from 19,881 cases recorded in 2011. A superbug is a bacterium that has developed resistance to antibiotic drugs, rendering common treatments ineffective.
The reasons for the sharp rise in resistance are complicated, Ho said. But he explained: “Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Because of overcrowding, organisms spread easily from people to people both in hospitals and in the community.” Ho, chairman of the Health Protection Program on Antimicrobial Resistance and a member of the Scientific Committee on Infection Control at the Center for Health Protection, added: “The increasing elderly population also makes the situation worse. Old people are more likely to develop infections and so require more treatment with antibiotics.”
Over-prescription of antibiotics is another reason for the rise. Ho said that this problem was intensified by very limited access to rapid diagnostic testing facilities for public hospital doctors, which reduced their ability to give patients precise treatment in emergencies. “So many doctors will try to err on the safer side and over-prescribe,” he said.
Last year at Queen Mary Hospital alone, 232 patients died due to bloodstream infections. Of these, 35% were dead by the time their test reports were returned. “There’s good evidence that improved access to rapid diagnostic testing can save lives.”
Ho added that more transparency was needed about patients infected by superbugs in Hong Kong because data provided by the Hospital Authority lacked detail. “I don’t see a legitimate reason not to make full disclosure of the figures,” he said.
~ MERIT FREEMAN