By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Patients who undergo treatment at more than one hospital in Europe should be screened for the drug-resistant "superbug" MRSA to help prevent its spread, scientists said on Tuesday.
Dutch researchers who studied methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which causes difficult-to-treat infections such as blood poisoning and pneumonia, found it occurred in geographical clusters across Europe and was not spreading freely.
This suggested it was passed on by patients who were repeatedly admitted to different hospitals, they said, and could be eventually stopped with proper control measures.
"Our study suggests that screening patients who have recently been in another hospital or healthcare institution would be very wise," said Hajo Grundmann of the University Medical Center in Groningen, the Netherlands, who led the study.
He said patients found to have MRSA should be isolated and handled with proper infection-prevention measures such as gloves and gowns or, if possible, be kept out of hospital until the bug had been treated.
Drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide and staff who fail to wash their hands are often blamed for spreading such infections. They kill about 25,000 people a year in Europe and about 19,000 in the United States.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which monitors and advises on disease in the European Union, calculates that superbug infections are responsible for 900 million euros ($1.31 billion) a year in extra hospital costs, and a further 600 million euros a year in lost productivity.
Medical experts say widespread overuse of antibiotics in Europe and the United States is causing an increase in cases of MRSA and other multi-drug-resistant bacteria -- often referred to as superbugs.
The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine and available at http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000205, used an interactive web tool to map different strains of staphylococcus aureus bacteria across Europe.
The results showed MRSA strains tended to cluster within regional borders and sometimes in individual hospitals.
Grundmann said screening of patients had been introduced in the Netherlands and in some hospitals in Britain and was helping to cut the number of MRSA cases.
If it were introduced throughout Europe, he said, it could have an "enormous impact" on the prevalence of MRSA within a few years.
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)