MRSA Action UK: In memory of Sammie, 17

I write this article during World MRSA Awareness Month, and as European Antibiotic Awareness Day approaches the project to publish the patient stories of MRSA Action UK on antibiotic resistance has been thwarted by the Department of Health who fear talking about the deaths that MRSA causes will mitigate their time and resources that they have spent on trying to communicate the message that not all MRSA infections are fatal.

Seventeen year-old Sammie Fallon’s story is one that will move anyone to tears, and appears to be too tragic to highlight the importance of resistant superbugs and the need to use our antibiotics wisely. If society hadn’t become so dependent on antibiotics over recent decades and concentrated on clean, safe care, then Sammie and thousands like her may be alive today. We have moved forward in a big way to reduce the resistant strains of MRSA bacteraemias since 2004 and we believe that highlighting the need to continue and strengthen the work that has been carried out is vital, looking at what happened to young Sammie and remembering her in this way would have helped tremendously in our view.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) told us “We became very attached to the story of Sammie Fallon as told by her mother as it was a real tragedy and in our view highlighted the human suffering involved when patients become infected with resistant bacteria.”

However since the ECDC are working closely with public health authorities in participating countries, there was an obligation to share this story with the Department of Health and ask for their clearance to use it for the European Antibiotic Awareness Day. The Department of Health do not want the ECDC to use this story, as they feel that they have “spent a lot of time and resources trying to communicate the message that not all MRSA infections are fatal”. Therefore, singling out a fatal case from the UK, to use it as a case study for a European wide campaign, would be inappropriate.

The ECDC have been sensitive to us at all times and have sought advice on the best approach for communicating this latest blow to Susan Fallon, Sammie’s mum. We hope that at some point an apology will be forthcoming from the Department of Health for the distress this has caused to Susan. We share her anxiety over what we view as an attempt to disregard our loved ones following their untimely deaths from MRSA.

The latest mantra we hear uttered is that many hospitals are now “MRSA free”; this is not true and never will be, not in our lifetime. There will always be MRSA infections in our hospitals and in the community. Despite legislation being passed in the Health Act 2008 on the requirement to have systems in place for the prevention and control of healthcare associated infections, the Department of Health is running the risk of disregarding it. The legislation actually sets out the need for arrangements to communicate risks and treatment to patients, yet we know only too well that the risks are constantly played down and dismissed from our day to day dealings with people who have been affected by MRSA and other healthcare associated infections.

How many more of us are going to have to suffer before the Department of Health recognises the need for openness and honesty? Only last week The Health Secretary stated that hospital infections were “now at their lowest levels ever” – with the growing threat from infections in the community and threats from resistance to carbapenems, we cannot afford to be playing these risks down, we would question the advice that was given to the Health Secretary for him to make this statement. Yes, MRSA bacteraemias are at their lowest level since 2004, when they were at their highest ever levels, however infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus and other pathogens remain a huge problem, with resistant strains constantly evolving. With higher proportions of reported healthcare associated infections in the community (68.5%), healthcare providers are having to constantly battle the bugs and look for new ways to tackle them. The bacteria never take their eye off the ball; if we drop our guard resistant infections will be at an all time high. And more worryingly, if we don’t do more to invest in preserving our reserves of antibiotics surgery as we know will take a step backwards, as without them we couldn’t carry out life the saving procedures we do today.

We must never forget all those lost to avoidable infections, and we would expect that anyone involved in giving care, or in the case of the Department of Health, writing policy, should always think about avoidable harm to honour those who have been lost. Not being allowed to use the story of Sammie Fallon fly’s in the face of David Cameron and Andrew Lansley’s voice on open government. Sammie Fallon’s case was not your typical Department of Health example of someone old, frail and immune compromised. Sammie was a young attractive girl with her whole life in front of her taken from her family because we ignored resistant bacteria for far too long. The Department of Health could have used her case to highlight the improvements and advances that they have made as a positive step for families and loved ones, sadly; in fact, a civil servant took the negative decision instead of a positive one.

Derek Butler
Chair, MRSA Action UK
07762 741114