Gut Infections are Killing the Elderly at Frightening Rates

By Veronique Greenwood | March 20, 2012 10:52 am

C. difficile

For frequent readers of this blog and Carl Zimmer’s The Loom, the bacterium Clostridium difficile may ring a bell. It’s a germ that can cause devastating, intractable gut infections, and is one of the reasons behind the recent development of fecal transplants to try to give the patient healthy gut bacteria to fight back with. C. difficile is on more people’s radar these days, and with good reason. A new Centers for Disease Control report shows that infections from C. difficile and another gut pathogen, norovirus, have grown more common and much more lethal in the last fifteen years. In 2007, they killed more than double the people they’d killed ten years before, jumping from 7,000 to 17,000. Most of those who died were elderly.

C. difficile started making health headlines in 2004, when a drug-resistant strain emerged. It often spreads in hospitals and nursing homes where patients are on antibiotics that destroy their normal gut bacteria and there is less-than-perfect hygiene. The bug spreads via the fecal-oral route, usually when a trace of feces makes its way into someone’s mouth. But it’s extremely difficult to kill C. difficile on someone’s skin—even alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t work—so health workers must use gloves to keep from spreading C. difficile among patients. Still, 94% of C. difficile infections come from healthcare settings. It’s clear that whatever doctors are doing to halt the spread, it’s not working. More stringent disinfecting of exam rooms, better adherence to wearing gloves, and less use of antibiotics are on the list of possible solutions.

[via NYT]

Image courtesy of Dr. Holdeman / CDC

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Jay Fox

    Is there any connection between this problem and the GM food-like products that are leaving traces of Bt toxin and glyphosphate in people’s bloodstreams? The article does not state if this is a worldwide problem, or just here in the US and Canada. The timing seems suspicious.

  • Carol

    How about too many antibiotics killing off good gut bacteria and not enough probiotics replenishing them?

  • Redshift

    The article doesn’t say anything about (insert politically charged topic I disagree with here), therefore that must be the problem

  • Concerned1

    Since doctors are already aware, along with hospitals and nursing homes, of the problem growing, their non-compliance with cleanliness protocols ought to rightfully be addressed in the civil courts with increased damages in the event event of terminal health issues. Further, by disregarding or neglecting protocol, their actions may be prosecuted criminally under a myriad of laws broken. Our health system isn’t broken so much as the patients families are told to not prosecute, as the death involved is portryaed as their loved ones ” time to die”. Neglegince is negligence, and determined negligence is still a homicide.

    The fault may be partly with the non compliance with rpotocol, but it is more pertinetly that of the legal system to jail negligent doctors, and sue them for every dime. A compliant doctor has no need to fear the law, but a negligent one needs to face his or her day in court.

  • reevesAstronomy

    @Carol – Antibiotics are definitely not good for the bacteria in our guts and probiotics (as in the case of the probiotic yogurts and such) may actually be counter-productive as well. They have a tendency to replace the diverse gut flora with single species of bacterium.

  • ex – Mormon missionary

    Yes keep prescribing those antibiotics left and right and soon enough these bugs will be the last thing to worry about

  • Pippa

    We have a higher proportion of elderly people now – – – though that does not account for all of the rise in deaths.
    We don’t test health care workers to screen out carriers, and with good reason. I suspect that a high proportion of them, and their families, are carriers. There would be no-one left to work!

  • blueash

    The NYT statistic is wrong. The frequency of community acquired (not in hospital or nursing home) C diff is rapidly increasing and has reached over 30% already. It is everywhere. Like MRSA it started as a hospital bug, so did C diff. and neither stayed there.
    Wash your hands and Don’t take antibiotics for your viral sinus and chest infections

  • Gordon chamberlain

    Antibiotics are also massively used in animal factory farms and as a result I believe have been implicated in drug resistant MRSA

  • Simon

    Nobody said anything about current food, that is, preserved products, sweets full of chemicals, etc. And I think this is one of the main reasons (together with medicine drugs) that makes immune systems overload and finally pathogenic bacteria, just like the one described in this paper, causes diseases first among alters. However, nowadays even young people are under great threat of this kind of modern-food causing diseases.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar