Tens of thousands of people have been put in isolation in New Zealand hospitals to stop the spread of infection with one person largely confined to his room for 115 days.

At least 41,600 people were put in isolation in hospitals around the country between 2015 and October 31, 2017 – about 13,000 a year.

Only 10 of the country's 20 district health boards were able to provide data showing how many patients were isolated to stop the spread of infection during that time so actual figures could be double that.

Norovirus, multi-drug resistant organisms, clostridium difficile, herpes, shingles, chickenpox, tuberculosis, measles, respiratory viruses, diarrhoea, rashes, scabies, whooping cough, mumps and meningococcal disease were all reasons for isolating patients according to hospitals.

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The level of isolation varied and was categorised as contact, droplet or airborne but in each case the patient was directed to only leave the room when essential and take necessary precautions if they did.

Contact isolation only required a staff member or visitor to wear gloves and a gown when coming in to contact with the patient or other objects in the room.

Droplet isolation required that people wear a surgical mask when within a metre of the patient while airborne isolation required the door to be closed, a negative pressure room and the wearing of a particulate respirator when entering a room.

Patients with weak immune systems could also be placed into protective isolation.

One patient, who was in the care of Capital and Coast District Health Board, spent 276 days in hospital for a complicated surgical condition and was in contact isolated for 115 of those days because of the presence of a multi-drug resistant organism – most commonly bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics.

Other long stays included one patient isolated for 64 days and another for 59 days – both because of multi-drug resistant organisms. Most health boards refused to provide details of their longest spells in isolation citing either privacy concerns or the time required to provide the information.

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board explained isolation precautions were designed to prevent transmission of micro-organisms in hospitals between patients, staff and visitors.

"Although placing a patient in isolation may be inconvenient for staff, the patient and their visitors, the disadvantages must be weighed against the importance of preventing the spread of serious and epidemiologically-significant micro-organisms in hospitals, which may be hazardous for the patient and increase costs."

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Contact isolation was the most common form with the fewest people requiring airborne isolation. Measles, chicken pox and tuberculosis were among reasons for the use of airborne isolation procedures.

University of Otago Professor Kurt Krause, director of the Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases, said contact precautions were highly effective and essential because most bacteria was spread by contact – touching a surface with the bacteria on it and then touching your face or food.

Contact isolation was not particularly harsh on patients whereas airborne isolation could be "very difficult for a patient because they are really quite cut off".

As superbugs resistant to common drugs become more common, more people could find themselves facing contact isolation to stop the spread of the disease before it became a widespread problem, he said.

Each district health board had similar protocols and procedures to be followed to prevent the spread of contagious illnesses to staff and other patients.

In most instances people with infectious diseases were placed in a room on their own although people with the same illness were sometimes grouped together.