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Each year, one in nine Canadian hospital patients will acquire an infectious disease. It is estimated that 8,000 to 12,000 Canadians will die. Many hospital infections have grown so resistant they can no longer be cured with common antibiotics.

Health care acquired infections are one of the most significant infectious disease challenges in Canada. But Stephen Harper doesn’t seem to care. In his three years as Prime Minister, Harper has shown a shocking lack of leadership around the spread of infectious disease in the health care system.

Health care facilities across the country cut housekeeping budgets in the 90s, and have not re-invested adequately since. Harper’s “solution”: allow increased privatization of hospital cleaning services rather than a national, public prevention program.

Contracting out health care services such as hospital cleaning has always been bad news for workers. Private ownership and delivery of health care services means low pay, poor working conditions and inadequate training.

But contracting out is even worse for patients. Clean hospitals are the backbone of infection control, and hospital support workers keep our hospitals clean. But when all that matters is a private company’s cost-saving bottom line, cleaning standards plummet and virulent diseases spread.

Three major bacteria threaten Canada’s health care system: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), C. difficile, and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE). These “superbugs” are highly contagious and can live on surfaces for weeks. At least thirty percent of infections are preventable, but only with careful cleaning.

Private cleaning companies want to see quantity over quality. In a survey of a Vancouver hospital emergency room staff, 86% felt that overall cleanliness had declined since housekeeping staff were privatized. In another BC survey, private cleaning staff were told to use only one pair of disposable gloves per shift.

While the federal government sees cuts and privatization as a cost-saving measure, real savings would come from a national, public prevention program including increased investment in a public cleaning staff that is accountable to national standards of care.

A national program would save lives, shorten wait times and save money that could go towards strengthening our health care system.

There is a clear course of action to combat hospital acquired infections. All we need is a federal government willing to take action. Jack Layton has led the way on disease prevention, patient safety and health promotion, and has worked to halt privatization. Stephen Harper has done nothing as infection rates escalate.

This election, vote for a leader who will keep our hospitals safe from infectious diseases. CUPE members and their families deserve nothing less.