By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Cancer patients urgently needing bone marrow transplants will be treated in United States and British hospitals after an infection by antibiotic-resistant bacteria forced the closure of the national transplant unit in St James’s Hospital in Dublin.
Infection with the bacteria, Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus, was identified in 11 of the 26 patients currently in the 31-bed unit.
Some of the infected patients in the unit have not suffered any symptoms.
"It can also cause a variety of infections in patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation or intensive treatment for acute leukemia and certain cancers," a hospital statement said.
Although it is a very resistant organism, one of the most modern antibiotics is being successfully used to treat those infected.
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Unit director, Prof Shaun McCann, said the Irish government had agreed to fund any transplants that are necessary for patients in hospitals in Europe and North America. Eight patients require immediate transplantation.
McCann said VRE had evolved over a number of generations in Europe and Northern America, probably as a result of over-use of antibiotics in humans and animals.
He said VRE is now widely found with up to 30 percent of the population carrying the bug in their bowel and never knowing about it.
Health Minister Micheal Martin has assured medical staff of full financial support to send patients abroad and McCann guaranteed that transplants would go ahead on time.
He said the closure would also allow them to deal with other problems, including a 30 percent shortfall in nurses and doctors and modernizing of the unit.
The unit, which opened in 1984, currently transplants about 70 patients a year. It is expected to be closed for several months.