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A "superbug" sweeping Canadian hospitals has put down roots in Vegreville - in a hospital already criticized by the local health authority for poor sterilization practices.
On Friday, East Central Health ordered St. Joseph's General closed to new admissions while it combs through four years of hospital records to find everyone who might have been exposed to inadequately sterilized equipment.
All patients who've undergone any surgical, scoping or other invasive procedures at St. Joseph's since April 1, 2003 are being asked to get tested for HIV, Hepatitis C and B.
"I want to emphasize the risk to the public is very low," said Dr. Gerhard Benade, East Central medical officer of health. "We had a meeting with (hospital administration) to give them instructions on what they had to do. It's become clear that they haven't been doing well.
"I'm very alarmed by this."
Meanwhile, East Central is reporting "continuing cases" at St. Joseph's of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - MRSA - an antibiotic-resistant "superbug" which has been haunting hospitals across North America since the 1960s.
MRSA can cause secondary infections and - in patients with compromised immune systems - pneumonia and blood stream infections. Patients with MRSA are believed to be five times more likely to die than other patients.
Alberta deputy provincial medical health officer Karen Grimsrud said a routine January audit discovered that scoping equipment in the facility was not being properly scrubbed before it was placed in a sterilization chamber, and the equipment was not being kept in the chamber long enough.
That audit led to an order for St. Joseph's to shut down its surgery and central sterilization room in February - an order which wasn't obeyed.
"I have no idea why not," said Benade. "They'd stopped sterilizing surgical equipment, but were still sterilizing other equipment packs.
"These (orders) are not negotiable. Hospitals should have only the very highest standards of infection control."
The double-hit of the superbug cases combined with the violation of a regional health order has Vegreville residents wondering whether their last hospital visit made them sicker.
"It's negligence. It's a joke," said Lawrence Harrison, 49, a former paramedic being treated for lupus at St. Joseph's. "You could see the nurses were in damage-control mode (yesterday), shutting down access to some sections of the hospital.
East Central found several cases of MRSA at St. Joseph's and its associated long-term care centre when it took over responsibility for the facilities four years ago.
The health authority ordered a crash course in infection control methods for hospital staff - everything from routine hand-washing to the use of fresh gloves with every new patient. Between January and mid-February, however, seven new MRSA cases appeared at the 25-bed hospital.
In a written statement issued last night, St. Joseph's chairman Orest Berezan said, "as a board we sincerely regret that the hospital has not been able to live up to the high expectations of our community. Our commitment is to strive to meet those expectations in future."
Other news reports were saying that the surgical tools still had bits of flesh and blood on the tools and they used them on patients.