The H-bug epidemic: the impact of antibiotic-resistant staphylococcal infection on New Zealand society and health 1955-1963
Jowitt, Deborah Mary
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An epidemic of staphylococcal infections occurred in New Zealand hospitals and communities from 1955-1963. The 'H', or 'Hospital Bug', a strain of Staphylococcus aureus characteristic of the epidemic, was resistant to the most commonly used antibiotics. Post-operative patients, the frail elderly and mothers and babies were particularly vulnerable to staphylococcal colonization and infection. This thesis places the H-Bug epidemic in its historical context, discussing the ways in which the government and health professionals responded to the rising incidence of staphylococcal infection, and the major effects of the epidemic on medical and hospital practice. It also examines the impact of persistent staphylococcal infection on women and families in the community. Primary sources provided the basis for this thesis. The H-Bug epidemic has gone largely unrecorded except in contemporary documents. Health Department files and Auckland Hospital Board records as well as newspaper clippings were important sources. The New Zealand epidemic was clearly linked to the global pandemic of antibiotic resistant staphylococcal infection, 1946-1966, through medical literature and archival documents. International medical journals, including the New Zealand Medical Journal, published numerous articles on the epidemiology of antibiotic-resistant staphylococcal infection, providing an excellent record of research, case studies, current opinion, and recommended practice. The most valuable contribution to an understanding of the impact and experience of the H-Bug epidemic was, however, provided by the nineteen people who agreed to be interviewed for the study. Interviewees included a wide variety of health professionals and women and their children, all of whom had personal experience or association with the epidemic. In this thesis it is argued that the main focus of the medical response was the prevention and control of hospital cross-infection, both to protect patients and to preserve the public perception of the hospital as a safe venue for care. Although the emergence of resistant strains of staphylococci was widely attributed to the misuse of antibiotics, this thesis contends that the Health Department was reluctant to impose restrictions on medical prescribing and that Health Department official and senior clinicians chose instead to modify hospital environments and clinical practice. Rooming-in was widely introduced to counter the epidemic despite the fact that a trial in 1959, at National Women's Hospital, did not demonstrate a reduction in infection rates among neonates. The concept endured, however, as it held strong appeal for hospital administrators hard pressed to keep wards adequately staffed with trained personnel. It was also supported by women and health professionals who were convinced of the benefits of a close mother-baby relationship from birth. The H-Bug epidemic was eventually resolved by the introduction of the methicillin antibiotics in the early 1960s. As a consequence, confidence in a pharmaceutical solution to infectious disease remained intact until the emergence of multiple antibiotic resistant organisms in the 1980s. The lessons of the H-Bug epidemic had been largely forgotten in the intervening years, ignored until New Zealand clinicians were reminded once again that antimicrobial resistance would inevitably accompany the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and inadequate attention to infection prevention and control.