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Comment: Infection prevention is a legal requirement

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In recent years there has been much publicity about the need to improve infection prevention in all areas of health and social care.

This has focused most notably on MRSA in hospitals but other micro-organisms have also attracted attention, including Clostridium difficile diarrhoea as well as community-acquired strains of both Methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA that produce Panton-Valentine Leucocidin (PVL).

The Department of Health responded to public concern by announcing in November 2004 a reduction target for MRSA bloodstream infections for acute NHS trusts. In addition, the need to demonstrate year-on-year reductions in infection and MRSA was set as a requirement for all NHS trusts. Several organisations within the NHS have responded by implementing sustained and focused campaigns to work towards reducing avoidable infections; many readers of NT will be actively involved in this work.

To support work such as this, the DH produced evidence-based tools and published these under the Saving Lives programme (for acute trusts) and Essential Steps (for all community-based care). The National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA) also implemented the cleanyourhands campaign, raising the importance of hand hygiene in the minds of the public and healthcare staff alike.

This has undoubtedly led to improvements in practice. Following its success, the NPSA is currently marketing the roll-out of a community version of the cleanyourhands campaign.

On 1 October 2006 the Health Act became law and the DH immediately issued the Code of Practice for the Prevention and Control of Healthcare Associated Infections. All NHS bodies have until 31 March to ensure they are compliant with the code, and the Healthcare Commission will inspect trusts to ensure compliance.

This is a fundamental change in the level of importance accorded to infection prevention measures, as it is the first time that compliance with key standards has been a legal requirement. Patients repeatedly state that they want care delivered in clean environments, without the fear of acquiring an infection. Nurses have already done much to improve standards and reassure patients.

The code will provide added support for all clinical staff working to reduce avoidable infection, and we must welcome it and use it to support practice development across all the areas in which we work.

Tracey Cooper MSc, DipN, RGN, is consultant nurse, infection prevention, Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust and editor of British Journal of Infection Control

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