Superbug data trip up Scottish Labour

Claims by Scotland’s shadow health secretary Jackie Baillie that Scotland is “the superbug capital of Europe” have landed her in a pickle. Scottish bloggers have piled in.

The claims were uncritically reported on Monday by, among others, the BBC and The Scotsman. But, as has been gleefully pointed out by the Scottish National Party, they do not bear the interpretation Ms Baillie put on them, and in any case relate to a period when Labour was in power, so cannot be blamed on the SNP.

The data came from a report by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, dated 16 November 2011 which published a map showing the prevalence of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) across Europe. This showed the infection rate in Scotland, at 9.5 per cent, to be equal-highest with Sweden.

The figures in the map and tabulated in the SPICe  briefing originated in the 2008 Annual Epidemiological Report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which cautions that cross-country comparisons must be used with care since they and compiled in different ways using different methods. A similar caution is expressed in the SPICe report. More recent reports from ECDC do not include comparable tables.

The Scottish figures come from a thorough prevalence survey carried out between October 2005 and October 2006 by Health Protection Scotland. Its report does not attempt cross-country comparisons and comparable surveys it does cite date from different periods, one as far back as 1980, when the first survey in England and Wales found a prevalence of 9.2 per cent.

Many of the surveys cited by SPICe were based on a small number of patients, different case definitions, and different time periods. Comparisons are risky, especially as it is known that HAI rates have fallen rapidly in Scotland, and in the rest of the UK, in recent years. The Scotsman itself reported in July, under the headline “Praise for hospital staff after Scottish superbug infections fall to record low” that MRSA and C.diff infections in Scottish hospitals were at their lowest-ever levels.

It’s possible, of course, that such infections have fallen as fast or faster in other European countries, and that Scotland is indeed the worst. But the data doesn’t exist to make such comparisons possible.

So Ms Baillie has castigated the present Scottish Government using figures for which it was not responsible, and ignored considerable improvements made since. And parts of the Scottish media reported her remarks without checking.  Not a good start to 2012.