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Evaluation of the national Cleanyourhands campaign to reduce Staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia and Clostridium difficile infection in hospitals in England and Wales by improved hand hygiene: four year, prospective, ecological, interrupted time series study

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 03 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3005

There is no doubt that the Cleanyourhands campaign has raised the profile of hand hygiene, with those responsible for infection control charged with implementation at every level.1 But to infer that the programme has been the sole driver for reducing the rates of some hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) is an assumption too far. Clinically relevant hand hygiene is not necessarily measured by consumption of soap or gel products; and HAI rates should not be linked to ‘splosh-and-go’ when there are so many other factors affecting microbial transmission. Sophisticated modelling of selected markers does not provide sufficient reassurance that hand hygiene, however performed, is our predominant defence against hospital infection.1

Given that hospitals must report staphylococcal bacteraemias, it is obvious why this marker was chosen for monitoring, but it does not include all clinical acquisitions.2 Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in blood only reflects the tip of the proverbial iceberg.3, 4 There are many other types of clinical specimens.5 All hospital acquisitions of MRSA are significant, not just those ultimately ending up in the bloodstream. Indeed, the campaign had no effect on methicillin-susceptible S. aureus (MSSA) bacteraemias; presumably because MSSA does not attract the same level of infection control attention as its multi-resistant counterpart.6 Why blame the community? There is no easy explanation for increasing numbers of patients admitted with MSSA bacteraemia. Patients are not generally screened for MSSA, however, whereas increasing interest in MRSA screening occurred during the campaign period.7-11 It was suggested as national policy in 2007 but there are no available data for comparable national level analyses.11 We know that patient screening prevents subsequent infection.12 Could screening not have affected MRSA rates, piecemeal as it may have been, leaving MSSA to flourish? As soon as MRSA carriage is identified, a barrage of control practices is unleashed, including isolation; topical decontamination; antimicrobial review; contact screening; catheter care; and follow-up, amongst others.13 Managerial focus on imposed MRSA targets means that superficial MRSA, smothered by mupirocin, fails to progress to bacteraemia.

Similarly, C.difficile responds to additional infection control measures, including environmental decontamination and antibiotic stewardship. The latter is well established in the control of C.difficile.14 In one (Scottish) hospital, ceftriaxone consumption fell from 46 to 2 DDDs/1000 patient-occupied bed-days over a two year period, resulting in a 77% reduction in hospital-acquired C.difficile-associated disease (correlation 0.83; p> 0.005).15 Overt monitoring of hand hygiene over the same period reported the usual compliance rates of 90% or so, but the covert option revealed a real life rate of just 25%, perhaps because Cleanyourhands didn’t cross the border.16

Aside from the role of antibiotics, the politicised compulsory ‘deep clean’ of hospitals in 2007-8 was unmentioned. 17 This served to focus on the much documented state of hospital cleanliness and doubtless initiated managerial attention on domestic services. Improved cleaning is known to be beneficial for a multitude of hospital pathogens, including MRSA and C.difficile.18 Contact surface area of a ward is, after all, rather more than that of the hands of its staff. Furthermore, admission of a patient into a bed previously occupied by an infected patient significantly increases their chance of acquiring the same pathogen, regardless of compliance with hand hygiene.19 Newly cleaned hands touching contaminated environmental sites consistently undermine hand hygiene success.18, 20

It only remains to say that whilst UK MRSA bacteraemia and C. difficile rates have dipped, no such trend has been observed for multi-drug resistant coliforms. The increasing rate of gel consumption mirrors the inexorable increase in resistant E. coli bacteraemias.1,21 Could the two be linked? Indeed, no amount of gel would do much to rebut the hugely troublesome and increasingly frequent outbreaks of norovirus.22 The authors should not allow well-meaning zeal to cloud their analyses. Reductions in MRSA and C.difficile rates across the UK are the result of intense and targeted team work on multiple fronts.13,17 Not withstanding the contribution from hand hygiene programmes, all those responsible for infection control in hospitals should be thanked for their hard work. They might now ponder the means to retain emphasis on all hygienic activities. Only continued prominence of the importance of ‘clean’ will ultimately provide the defence we need from inevitable super superbugs.23

Stephanie J. Dancer
Consultant Microbiologist


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Competing interests: No competing interests

07 June 2012
Stephanie J Dancer
Consultant Microbiologist
NHS Lanarkshire