Cases of a hospital superbug have rocketed by over a third in North-East hospitals, new figures revealed last night.
The rise in Clostridium difficile comes as national figures from the Health Protection Agency showed an 8% rise in the infection in patients aged over 65 in 2006.
The jump at both Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation last night sparked concerns over hospital cleanliness and staffing levels.
The number of cases at Newcastle-run hospitals rose by 132 from 365 cases in 2005 to 497 last year, 36%. At Northumbria-run hospitals the total increased by 129 from 378 cases in 2005 to 507 last year, 34%.
The increases go against the decreasing number of another hospital bug MRSA, which fell by 7% nationally in the last published quarter.
But the Newcastle trust, which runs the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle General and the Freeman Hospital, also saw a significant rise in cases of the blood infection MRSA in the last quarter.
Clostridium difficile causes diarrhoea which can be severe and prove fatal. Elderly patients who have been treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics are at greatest risk.
Sheila Morgan, nurse consultant in infection prevention and control for the Newcastle trust, cited an ageing population for the C. diff figures, not poor cleanliness.
She said: "We have an older population than ever before.
"The patients who acquire this have usually been on antibiotics and there is a bigger population of vulnerable people."
She said low staffing levels could affect cleanliness and in turn the spread of the bug, but said that was "not the case" at Newcastle.
David Evans, medical director for the Northumbria trust pinpointed the cases of C. diff to two wards at North Tyneside General Hospital and Wansbeck General Hospital dealing with patients with "complex respiratory problems".
"We have a lot of people with bad chests in North Tyneside and Ashington who are getting older and requiring antibiotics and are more prone to Clostridium difficile."
Reported cases have fallen at hospitals in Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham and Darlington.
Mr Evans said patients who had contracted the infection as a result of hygiene and cleanliness issues at the trust were "a small part of the case load of people we are dealing with".
Both trusts said work was underway around infection control and good hygiene practice to address the problem.
The government was yesterday criticised over the rising figures, which come as the NHS has suffered thousands of job cuts.
Unison's North-East head of health Liz Twist believes job cuts could be partly to blame for the rise in the number of cases.
She said: "Staff aren't being replaced when they are leaving. That means we have additional pressure on staff working in hospitals and fewer staff on duty."
Ronnie Campbell, Labour MP for Blyth and a Commons Health Select Committee member, called for action.
He said: "It's a big problem and I think a lot more effort needs to be made at hospitals in our area to come up with ways to combat this."
Country's first infection control training course slashes MRSA figures by 34%
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust has seen a 34% drop in MRSA bloodstream infections just one year after bosses called in hit squads to battle soaring MRSA rates.
Of the 103,000 admissions the trust had between April 2006 and March 2007 there were 52 MRSA infections, compared to 79 for the previous year.
The trust - which runs general hospitals in Hexham, Ashington and North Tyneside, along with community hospitals around the region - says the reduction is due to the efforts of staff and infection control team.
Bosses have launched a new infection control training course - believed to be the first of its kind in the country - to help fight against hospital superbugs including MRSA.
The trust missed its 2005/06 MRSA target of 41 - part of an ongoing bid for a 60% reduction over three years running to 2008.
But Dr Bryan Marshall, Director of Infection Prevention and Control, said: "The reduction is significant but there is still work to do. We are committed to continuing this improvement in the future."
How the health trusts performed
Breakdown of Clostridium difficile figures in the North-East for the last two years from the Health Protection Agency.
Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundations Trust had 365 cases in 2005 which rose to 497 last year.
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundations Trust had 378 cases in 2005 which increased to 507 last year.
County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundations Trust had 531 cases in 2005 which dropped to 464 last year.
City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundations Trust had 436 cases in 2005 which decreased to 290 last year.
Gateshead Health NHS Foundations Trust had 207 cases in 2005 compared to 169 last year.
South Tyneside NHS Foundations Trust had 156 cases in 2005 compared to 103 last year.
BREAKDOWN of MRSA quarterly figures for July to September and October to December last year.
Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundations Trust 17 increased to 24.
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundations Trust, 11 rose to 12.
County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundations Trust, 14 dropped to 12.
City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundations Trust, 12 rose to 13.
Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, nine dropped to eight.
South Tyneside NHS Foundations Trust, two dropped to zero.