CDC warns the public about deadly C. diff infections, patient safety advocates react

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14,000 Americans die every year from diarrhea-causing C. difficile (or C. diff for short) infections and 337,000 people are hospitalized, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unlike other healthcare-associated infections that have been on the decline over the past decade, C. diff infection rates and deaths climbed to historic highs and “pose threat across medical facilities,” adding at least $1 billion in extra costs to the health care system, said the CDC Director.

The people most at risk are those who take antibiotics and also receive medical care in any setting. This could include a nursing home, hospital, doctor’s office, outpatient surgery center, etc. Those most at risk include people who have been in a hospital or other health care facility and have taken antibiotics in the past three months, especially those over age 65. About half of all antibiotics that patients are given are not needed, raising the risk of C. diff infections.

That’s unacceptable. Everyone receiving medical care should be concerned about C. diff because the effects can be devastating and sudden.

That was the case for Peggy Lillis, a public schoolteacher in Brooklyn. In April 2010, Peggy had routine dental surgery and took a common antibiotic to aid healing. Soon, however, she developed painful diarrhea. Peggy died of C. diff within just six days.

“We applaud the CDC’s efforts to increase awareness of the changing nature of clostridium difficile infection and the public health crisis its represents, in particular, the growing danger to Americans who are not currently hospitalized,” said Christian Lillis, who cofounded the Peggy Lillis Memorial Foundation to minimize death and disability from C. diff through education and advocacy. “Our mother, who died from a C. diff infection in April 2010, had not been hospitalized since 1976. We are committed to partnering with the CDC, Consumers Union and other patient advocacy groups to put this needed information into the hands of doctors, nurses and healthcare consumers, so we can work together to reduce infection rates and save lives.”

The helpful information provided by the CDC should be provided to patients and healthcare workers alike to wipe out C. diff and save lives. “The public needs to know about these [C. diff] infections, because they are so dreadful and pervasive,” wrote Kathy Day, RN, in a comment on the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog.

What can we learn from this C. diff threat? As with many health care-associated infections, health care facilities can prevent C. diff by prescribing and using antibiotics carefully, timely detection and isolation, and cleaning rooms with bleach or another product that can kill the C. diff spores. Hospitals that adhere to strict infection control recommendations cut C. diff infections by 20 percent in less than two years. Probiotic therapy is another measure that may reduce rates of C. diff infections in hospitals. Consumer Reports recommends asking your hospital or other health care facility staff what steps they’re taking to control C. diff. The CDC offers some practical tips for how to protect yourself as a patient from C. diff infections, which includes telling your doctor if you have been on antibiotics and get diarrhea within a few months, and washing your hands after using the bathroom.

This latest CDC report alerts us again that it’s time for everyone to take C. diff seriously. The stakes are too high.

Mary Brennan-Taylor of Lockport, NY applauded the CDC report. “My mother was one of the 14,000 annual victims of this cruel and relentless Healthcare Acquired Infection.,” she said. “Since her death, I look at all recommendations, regarding C. diff and MRSA through the lens of, ‘would this have saved Mom?’  I can objectively say, that had the hospital and rehab facility employed the measures recommended in the report, my mother would most likely still be with us today.”

You can keep track of the latest news and research on C. diff infections on our website and read our November 2008 policy brief here. And if you or someone you know has a C. diff infection story to share, please take a moment to share it with us here. Your story will help us keep up the fight against C. diff infections by illustrating what needs to change in our health care settings.