Last Updated: 2007-10-16 9:00:22 -0400 (Reuters Health)

LONDON (Reuters) – A hospital in northern England has shut its neonatal intensive care unit after five babies tested positive for a strain of the superbug MRSA.

The unit at the Royal Blackburn Hospital has been closed to admissions since the middle of last month but news of the outbreak has only now been revealed.

Rineke Schram, Medical Director for East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, said none of the babies was seriously ill but they were being treated in a separate area within the unit.

She said everything was now being done to eradicate the rare form of the bug, Panton Valentine Leukocidin (PVL) positive MRSA.

"I understand this is a confusing and worrying time for people who have spent time on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit," she said in a statement.

"The particular strain of MRSA in the unit has only just been identified and until we were in possession of all the facts we did not want to raise alarm or concern within the community.

"It was also very important we spoke to the parents of the babies first, to keep them up-to-date."

Schram said the babies were not infected with the MRSA but had been "colonised".

"Colonisation is where the MRSA organism is present without causing any untoward effect for the individual," she said.

"This can be on the skin or other parts of the body outside the blood stream. A `colonised’ individual would not show any symptoms of illness but would be able to pass the organism on.

"This is different to being infected with MRSA which only occurs once the organism is present in the blood stream (or possibly elsewhere) and is causing illness."

The Trust said there had been no new outbreaks and they hoped to reopen the unit as soon as all the affected babies had returned negative results for carrying MRSA on their skin.

A majority of the babies affected have already tested negative.

Tuesday’s revelation comes a day after James Lee, chairman of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Hospital NHS Trust resigned in a scandal over superbug infection.

Last month Gordon Brown ordered a deep clean of every hospital in Britain to try to tackle the problem caused by superbugs such as MRSA.

The hospital-acquired bacterium, which latest figures show contributed to 1,650 deaths in 2005, most often affects those with weak immune systems and the elderly.