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Auckland has emerged as New Zealand's superbug capital as cases of antibiotic-resistant infections soar across the country.

And there is concern certain strains may become untreatable unless health authorities urgently step up efforts to stem outbreaks.

Figures out this week from Environmental Science Research show the national average rate for the potentially deadly MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) jumped by 19 per cent to 227.4 recorded cases per 100,000 people between 2007 and 2008.

Counties Manukau's rate of 486.7 per 100,000 was more than double the national average, while the central Auckland rate was 50 per cent higher.

Northland had the second highest rate in the country.

Last year, 87 per cent of patients with the VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococcus) superbug, were from Auckland hospitals, which experienced a series of outbreaks over 13 months.

Superbugs are bacteria resistant to common treatment with common antibiotics such as methicillin and vancomycin. They have reached epidemic proportions in British and American hospitals.

The ESR figures also reveal that superbugs have spread into community care, with an estimated 62 per cent of MRSA cases contracted outside hospitals. The figures are based on a one-month snapshot of cases identified by the government-owned laboratories.
Last August laboratories saw 736 cases, 30 of which were hospital staff. Elderly people were most vulnerable.

Green Party health spokeswoman Sue Kedgley said the figures were likely to underestimate the problem because reporting was ad hoc and voluntary.

Last year, the Greens got the Government to set aside $4 million for a surveillance system to track all MRSA cases but the money hasn't been spent. "It seems to me we're taking a casual approach," said Kedgley.

"Once these things become established in the community they become very hard to eradicate.

"The Government and Auckland DHBs need to act vigorously to fight the spread of superbugs in Auckland before they get out of control and we are confronted with untreatable infections."

Counties Manukau DHB chief operating officer Ron Dunham said the board was "deadly serious" about combating cross-contamination.

Hospitals screened all patients and staff for superbugs. Middlemore Hospital had just employed a person whose sole responsibility was to remind staff to wash their hands between patients and ensure hygiene supplies, such as paper towels, were maintained.

Middlemore is also due to open a new ward containing more en suites, allowing better isolation of infected patients.

Neither the Auckland nor Northland boards had people available for comment yesterday.

Kedgley said she was also concerned about infection controls in rest homes after a TVNZ journalist contracted MRSA after posing as a rest home worker.

Martin Taylor of Healthcare Providers, which represents private rest homes, said providers took superbug infections as seriously as public hospitals and had to meet the same standards.

The potentially fatal infections first appear as raised dots on the skin that look like pimples or boils. Left untreated, they can develop into pus-filled, ball-sized abscesses and infect bones and organs.

Not everyone has symptoms. Reducing the use of antibiotics is one of the most effective ways of curbing MRSA.