National monitoring of superbugs is set to increase, more than four years after it was cut back to save money.

The Health Ministry has called for tenders for the work, after the National Government provided $1 million in the Budget for "improving control of antimicrobial resistance".

The Weekend Herald reported that the outbreak of a superbug called ESBL at North Shore Hospital has become so bad that officials are considering permanently cutting each ward in two, with patients who test positive for the bacteria being cared for by a separate nursing staff.

Already, all Waitemata District Health Board inpatients are tested for the bug, and positive cases are nursed in special rooms by staff wearing gowns and gloves.

But because of staff shortages, these nurses sometimes also have to work in the rooms for patients awaiting the results of their ESBL tests, increasing the risk of transferring the bacteria to those who are free of them.

In April, 245 Waitemata inpatients - around 20 per cent - were ESBL positive, but this was down to 162by August, following stringentnew hygiene measures at the North Shore and Waitakere hospitals to control the spread of the bug,which lives mainly in the bowel.

ESBL - extended spectrum beta lactamase-producing bacteria - is an umbrella term for a group of bugs that are resistant to a range of antibiotics. Most people who have ESBL bugs are harmlessly "colonised" by them, but in some people they develop into an infection of various parts of the body, most dangerously in the bloodstream, where they can be fatal.

Green Party health spokeswoman Sue Kedgley said yesterday that she had thought plans to improve monitoring of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which her party negotiated with Labour, had fallen through when National was elected last year,but was pleased to find that theproject was mentioned in background documents for this year's Budget.

She has campaigned for this since state-funded monitoring by the Institute of Environmental Science & Research (ESR) of superbugs including ESBL was cut in 2005 from weekly reporting to an annual estimate based on all drug-resistant superbug samples collected for a specified month by hospital and community laboratories.

The reduction was "stupid", she said at the time.

"We need more, not less surveillance of this."

ESBL was virtually nonexistent in New Zealand in 1999, but last year ESR estimated there were more than 5000 cases. Auckland and Hawkes Bay were the worst-affected regions.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus has, likewise, increased sharply since the 1990s, with an estimate of more than 9000 cases last year. The highest rates of MRSA, considered a greater killer than ESBL, are in Auckland, Northland, Hawkes Bay and the Lakes health district.

Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) - after an outbreak at Auckland Hospital and sporadic cases at Waikato Hospital and elsewhere - dropped to just one case reported for last December.

Auckland City Hospital's head of microbiology, Dr Sally Roberts, said that no patients had caught VRE atthe hospital for more than ayear, although several had been admitted after acquiring the bug overseas.

* Estimates from national scientific surveys:

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, 9800 cases last year.

ESBL-producing bacteria, 5100 cases.