03/01/2012 05:02 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Burnaby Hospital Bacteria Deaths: Doctors Were Wrong About 84 Infection Deaths

BURNABY, B.C. - A British Columbia health authority has acknowledged the rate of C. difficile infection at a suburban Vancouver hospital is triple the rate of the Canadian benchmark, but denies 84 people have died because of it over the past two and a half years.

Doctors at Burnaby Hospital have said they believe the infection is linked to the deaths and the Opposition New Democrats accuse the government of covering up the problem.

But the Fraser Health Authority said Thursday that although those 84 patients had the infection, that doesn't mean it caused their deaths.

"Burnaby Hospital is a safe place to get hospital services," Dr. Andrew Webb, vice-president of medicine for the health authority, said in a news release.

"We are aware of the concerns raised by physicians and have been working on decreasing infection rates over the past three years."

Webb said efforts have included enhanced hospital cleaning, more focus on handwashing by health-care professionals and fewer and shorter courses of antibiotics for patients.

But the NDP said there has been a lack of leadership on the C. difficile issue, allowing the problem to fester.

"For years, this problem has been covered up by this ministry," Kathy Corrigan, MLA for Burnaby, said in the legislature during a feisty exchange with Health Minister Mike de Jong.

Corrigan referred to the case of a patient named Diana, who she said was placed in a room with two people infected with C. difficile at the overcrowded hospital. She was lucky enough to escape infection herself, Corrigan said.

De Jong acknowledged that while the C. difficile rate has been reduced, "it's not where it should be, it's not where we want it to be, it's not where the health authority wants it to be."

He said the health authority has brought in an internationally recognized expert to provide recommendations, which are being implemented at the aging facility.

"Rather than standing here and trying to score cheap political points the member should recognize that the officials, the clinicians, the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, everyone at Burnaby Hospital is doing their best," de Jong said.

Corrigan fired back: "I'm not trying to score cheap political points, I'm trying to save people from dying in my community hospital."

A Jan. 9 letter to the health authority, signed by seven medical department heads and an infectious disease expert, cites 473 serious cases of C. difficile at the hospital and 84 deaths and says the infection rate amounts to negligence that could result in possible legal action.

The health authority said it's implementing recommendations from an external review of C. difficile infection prevention and control practices at Burnaby Hospital and other facilities to slash the infection rate.

NDP health critic Mike Farnworth said one of the 13 recommendations says the Fraser Health infection prevention and control program is considerably undersourced compared to other jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S.

"How is it in the province of British Columbia that an infection control program in a major hospital cannot even meet recognized modern staffing standards?" he said.

The Hospital Employees Union said that despite the ongoing C. difficile issue, Burnaby Hospital passed independent housekeeping audits in 2009 through mid-2011, when the facility was experiencing endemic C. difficile infection rates.

"The audits fail to investigate other issues critical to hospital cleanliness and infection control such as the intensity and frequency of cleaning, the training of cleaners, the workload of cleaners, and the adequacy of cleaning supplies and equipment," the union said in a statement.

The health authority said various factor contribute to the spread of C. difficile, a commonly acquired infection in all hospitals, including poor hand hygiene and improper cleaning practices.

"As an older site, Burnaby Hospital has fewer isolation rooms and hand washing sinks and older human waste disposal systems, which make reducing the (C. difficile) rate a challenge at this site."

- By Camille Bains in Vancouver