Frustrated Niagara residents are hitting the streets this afternoon to speak out against what they see as a local health-care crisis.
They will be holding a rally outside the Greater Niagara General Hospital in Niagara Falls - one of three area hospitals experiencing clusters of C. difficile cases.
The bacterial disease has been linked to the deaths of 16 patients at the centres run by the Niagara Health System since late May.
Critics accuse the hospital network of mishandling the outbreak, which was declared June 23 after several deaths had already occurred.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 43 patients with the bug were in isolation in the Niagara Falls, Welland and St. Catharines General hospitals.
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath - who will address today's rally - says there should be an independent investigation into the state of health care in the region, where two hospital emergency rooms have been shut down in recent years.
"The Niagara Health System is a mess and it has been for a long time," Ms. Horwath told a news conference in Toronto this morning.
She said people in the region have told her they often avoid going to the local hospitals.
"They're travelling down the highway to places like Hamilton to go the hospital. That's unacceptable," Ms. Horwath said.
"People should have confidence in their local hospitals and they should be able to rely on those hospitals - not only to provide them with the services they need when they need it, but to not end up being sicker as a result of having been in them."
Ms. Horwath says the C. difficile issue is just one of the many problems caused by cutbacks in hospitals across the province.
An outbreak has also been declared at Guelph General Hospital, which is not part of the Niagara system. That hospital is reporting seven cases in May and four more in June, and says at least one patient death may have been related to a C. difficile infection.
The disease causes severe diarrhea in certain vulnerable patients as a result of taking antibiotics. Elderly patients, or those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.
Dr. Sue Matthews, president and CEO of the Niagara Health System, says the hospitals have taken a number of measures to prevent further spread of the bug. Steps include restricting the number of visitors to the hospitals, hiring more cleaners and bringing in two infection-control teams.
The Niagara Health System is a network of seven hospitals serving 434,000 people around Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.
Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said hospital-acquired infections kill up to 5,000 people in Ontario hospitals each year.
At least half of those deaths are preventable, he said, adding overcrowding and a reduction in cleaning staff can lead to ideal conditions for the spread of superbugs