Patient safety in hospital care depends on effective infection control (IC) programmes. The Antimicrobial Resistance Prevention and Control (ARPAC) study assessed the organisation, components and human resources of IC programmes in European hospitals. A questionnaire survey of policies and procedures implemented in 2001 for the surveillance and control of nosocomial infection and antibiotic resistance was completed by 169 acute-care hospitals from 32 European countries, categorised by five geographical regions. A formal IC programme existed in 72% of hospitals, and a multidisciplinary IC committee was operational in 90%. Trained IC nurses (ICNs) were present in 80% of hospitals (ranging from 54% in south-east and central-eastern Europe, to 100% in northern Europe), whereas 74% had one or more trained IC doctors (ICDs) (ranging from 46% in south-east Europe to 84% in western Europe). Median staffing levels were 2.33 ICNs/1000 beds and 0.94 ICDs/1000 beds. The intensity of IC programmes scored higher in centres from northern and western Europe than from other European regions. Written guidelines promoted hand hygiene for healthcare workers in 89% of hospitals, education in 85%, and audit in 46%. Guidelines recommended use of alcohol-based solutions (70%) and/or medicated/antiseptic soap (43%) for decontamination of non-soiled hands. Use of alcohol-based solutions varied according to region, from 41% in southern Europe to 100% in northern Europe, compared with use of medicated soap from 77% in southern Europe to 11% in northern Europe (p < 0.01). These findings showed that IC programmes in European hospitals suffer from major deficiencies in human resources and policies. Staffing levels for ICNs were below recommended standards in the majority of hospitals. Education programmes were incomplete and often not supported by audit of performance. Hand hygiene procedures were sub-standard in one-third of centres. Strengthening of IC policies in European hospitals should be a public health priority.