NHS patients at risk from vermin, says survey


Pest controllers have been called in by NHS hospitals hundreds of times yearly to deal with vermin infestations which place patients at risk of infection.

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According to a survey of hospitals in England, pests such as rats, mice, ants, silverfish, cockroaches and fleas are a constant concern.

Incidents have been reported in all hospital areas, from intensive care wards and A&E departments to staff rooms and canteens. Cases highlighted include bedbug-infested wards, mice in a children's nursery, fleas and cockroaches in maternity units and rats in a palliative care ward.

Some hospitals have noted more unusual complaints, recording problems with birds, foxes and squirrels.

Prof Mark Enright, an infection control expert at AmpliPhi Biosciences, said such cases were "scandalous" and had no place in modern hospitals. "It points to a lack of general hygiene. Rats can carry infections such as Weil's disease, which can be passed on to healthcare workers and patients."

"If someone is in an intensive care or paediatric ward, they are more susceptible to infection."

The survey, whose details were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, covered hundreds of pest-control call-outs between August and January, with information provided by more than 40 trusts. All hospitals have some type of contract with a pest-control firm, either for routine checks or for emergencies.

The survey's findings suggest that cleanliness remains a key challenge for many NHS hospitals. Although a national campaign has seen a reduction in cases of MRSA and C.difficile, other infections could be increasing.

Some weeks before the survey, a vulnerable 42-year-old patient claimed he was bitten on his back and neck by a rat while in bed at St Ebba's Hospital in Epsom, Surrey. According to staff, a field mouse was responsible for the attack.

Roger Goss, co-director of the campaign group Patient Concern, said the infestations are terrifying. "It shows that the rhetoric about patient safety being the number 1 priority is often little more than hollow words."

"You'd have thought this kind of problem would not be allowed to arise because cleaning systems are so continuous and efficient."

"But instead there is a question of priorities. If you've got targets to treat everyone in A&E within four hours, then this kind of thing is unglamorous by comparison and doesn't happen. There is no target to avoid rats in palliative care units, so it does not happen. The message to patients should simply be: steer clear of hospitals."

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