Last week an interesting study from the Netherlands demonstrated that a dog trained in detection was able to sniff out the presence of Clostridium difficile superbug (aka, C.difficile or c.diff) in hospital patients. Researchers knowing about dog’s good sniffing skills trained a beagle. The beagle “was guided along the wards by its trainer, who was blinded to the participants’ infection status. Each detection round concerned 10 patients (one case and nine controls). The dog was trained to sit or lie down when C.difficile was detected.” As you can see in this video, Cliff could identify stool samples “with a very high degree of accuracy” as well as identify simply by walking past the beds of patients with c.diff in their bodies.

Diagnosing C.difficile infections early are key to treating them and preventing the spread to other hospital patients. Typical testing for these infections takes time, can be complicated and is not terribly reliable, while Cliff screened a complete hospital ward in 10 minutes and correctly identified all of the positive samples and all but three of the negative samples!

The C.difficile bug infects the internal lining of the colon, it produces toxins that can cause serious inflammation and diarrhea – so serious a case of diarrhea that it can cause death. It is mostly spread in health care settings due to poor hygiene and failure to practice prevention protocols (such as isolating infected patients). Another risk factor is taking antibiotics, so overuse of antibiotics is thought to be a contributing factor of this growing problem. CDC states “When a person takes antibiotics, good germs that protect against infection are destroyed for several months. During this time, patients can get sick from C.difficile picked up from contaminated surfaces or spread from a health care provider’s hands.”

As CDC puts it, the bug spreads by “the fecal-oral route.”  What, you ask? How do feces get into people’s mouths? It is easy to understand once you know that c.diff spores can remain on environmental surfaces and inanimate objects such as dishes and doorknobs and bedrails for months. Improper hand hygiene by nurses, doctors or patients can leave these spores on surfaces; someone touches that surface later; then puts their hand in their mouth. Easy as that.

The devastation of this infection is growing and according to CDC is “at an all-time high.” About half of the people getting c.diff infections are under age 65 but elders are more likely to die (90% of the deaths occur in elders over age 65.) These infections are preventable through improved hand and effective environmental cleaning in hospitals. The Peggy Lillis Memorial Foundation outlines numerous treatment options.

There is a lot of interest in C.difficile because it is becoming more and more of a problem. Twenty-five national health organizations (including Consumers Union) and CDC recently issued a joint statement on more judicious use of antibiotics, recognizing antibiotic resistance as “one of the world’s most pressing public health threats” threatening “to return us to an era where simple bacterial infections will once again be deadly.”  And another new study tracked down the lineage of the antibiotic resistant bug since the early 2000s – finding that two resistant strains of the superbug began in the US and Canada.