The Health Service Executive has said St Columcille's Hospital in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin, is urgently trying to appoint a microbiologist and is treating the issue as a matter of the utmost importance.

The statement follows a report that the Dublin County Coroner is to ask the HSE's Chief Executive, Brendan Drumm, to urgently make the appointment.

It follows the deaths of 16 people as a result of hospital-acquired infections there over a seven-month period last year.

The HSE said consultant microbiology advice is currently available to St Columcille's on request from St Vincent's University Hospital.

The hospital is currently reviewing all its infection control procedures.

Labour earlier called on Minister for Health Mary Harney to ensure every step possible was taken to make the appointment.

A consultant at the hospital, Dr Donal O'Shea, said there have been improved standards of hygiene and patient care there, but combating hospital-acquired infections will be a major challenge.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio's News At One, Dr O'Shea said that as part of best practice, it is assumed that the so-called superbugs are present.

Ms Harney said the position had proved difficult to fill, but that every effort had to be made to reduce the incidence of hospital-acquired infection.

A spokesperson for MRSA and Families said she was not surprised about the high number of deaths at the hospital.

Teresa Graham said the problem of hospital-acquired infections in Irish hospitals is not new and has been going on for years.

She said health service management had been warned over the years about the problem and had failed to act.

Ms Harney said funding had been provided for a consultant microbiologist to be appointed at St Columcille's.

She said the position had been advertised on a number of occasions, but it had proven difficult to get anyone suitable.

Ms Harney said one would have to be concerned about high incidence of deaths from any condition in any setting, but she said she does not accept people are afraid to go into hospital.

She pointed out that the health service has a national plan to tackle health-acquired infections which would see them reduced by 20% in the coming years, and MRSA in particular by 30%.

This would involve a reduction in the use of antibiotics, she said, of 20%.