Robert Koch Foundation awards Hospital Hygiene Prize for the first time

Learning from Münster: Prestigious award for Helge Karch

Berlin, September 4, 2013

They are called MRSA or ESBL and they are increasingly dominating the headlines: dangerous bacteria that can survive an attack by most antibiotics. Such multi-resistant pathogens are spreading all the time and causing thousands of fatalities – also in German hospitals. Up to now, high-performance medicine has had little to offer to counter the threat.

The Münster model for hospital hygiene and infection prevention proves that targeted action does pay off. It shows that the risk can be contained if excellent basic researchers collaborate closely with hospitals and general practitioners within a region. The initiative was launched by a young team led by Professor Helge Karch at the University of Münster.

Karch and his team have today been awarded the ‘Prize for Hospital Hygiene and Infection Prevention’ by the Berlin-based Robert Koch Foundation for their pioneering work. The Director of the Institute of Hygiene at University Hospital, Münster, is the first winner of this newly created award, which is worth €50,000. The prize-giving ceremony took place in the ceremonial hall of Berlin City Hall in the presence of high-ranking personalities, including Thomas Ilka, State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Health. Before the ceremony, Federal Minister for Health Daniel Bahr (FDP) personally congratulated the prizewinner on receiving this prestigious award. “With this newly-created award, the Robert Koch Foundation has made an important contribution to improving hygiene and preventing infection in German hospitals”, said Bahr. Photos of the prizewinner together with Federal Minister for Health Daniel Bahr can be found here.

“By combining excellent science with rigorous measures in clinical practice, the winner and his team are making an exemplary contribution toward improving hospital hygiene in our country,” said Hubertus Erlen, Chairman of the Robert Koch Foundation during the prize ceremony. The Münster model creates a close network between regional hospitals, nursing homes, general practitioners and patients’ representatives on the one hand, and the University Hospital Münster on the other, with the goal of preventing the spread of dangerous germs. For example, on admission to the hospital, every patient is tested for MRSA and, if the test is positive, is treated in isolation until it is safe for him or her to be admitted to a normal ward. At the Institute of Hygiene an interdisciplinary team of about a hundred employees stand ready to examine new germs using state-of-the-art methods of molecular biology. Some of these procedures for determining the hazard potential of the germs were developed by the team led by Helge Karch and have spread all over the world.

It is worth all the effort – as demonstrated by the 2011 infection registration data for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia: the number of bloodstream infections by the particularly dangerous multi-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria were 57.6 per million inhabitants state-wide; in the Münster area, however, the incidence of these serious infections was much lower at 43.2 bloodstream infections per million. Helge Karch’s next project is to research how the bacterial pathogens of nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections manage to change so astonishingly quickly and simultaneously adapt to ever-new environmental conditions. “In addition, we are interested in the origins and distribution of these pathogens, which also occur outside the human body – for example in animals,” said the microbiologist. “We still know very little about this.”

The Münster model could be applied all over Germany, says Karch. The important thing was to be open to regional networking and interdisciplinary cooperation and to promote targeted research. “Unfortunately, there aren’t many hygiene institutes in Germany. But I know no better health system in the world than the one we have here, so surely there’s no reason why we shouldn’t succeed in improving hospital hygiene?”

The award is financially supported by B. Braun Melsungen AG.