12 Investigates: C. diff superbug kills thousands in U.S. each year

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - You go to the hospital to get better, not sicker - but around the country, a fast spreading infection caused by a so-called superbug has reached historically high levels.

Thousands are killed by it each year in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities.

It's full name is clostridium difficile - C. diff for short. The bacteria causes extreme diarrhea and some experts believe C. diff is linked to more than 30,000 deaths a year in the U.S. To put that in perspective, around 32,000 Americans are killed in traffic crashes a year.

C. diff is passed in feces to the hands. It can sit on surfaces for weeks. And when it gets inside the mouth, down the stomach and into the colon, what happens next is gut wrenching.

"A lot of patients will complain of just abdominal pain and distention. And then obviously there a problem of the actual diarrhea. They can have up to 10 bowel movements a day," said Amy Pakyz a VCU assistant professor of pharmacy.

C. diff can lead to severe diarrhea. It can also rupture colons, cause kidney failure, blood poisoning and death. Most every patient that comes down with it has a history of antibiotic use. The antibiotics unintentionally wipe out the good bacteria in the colon, leaving C. diff to flourish.

"Some of these patients are basically unable to leave their house because they can't stop having diarrhea. The patients become weak over time," said VCU Medical Center Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Edmond.

"A lot of times if you talk to people in the community who've had this infection, it's was worse than the original problem that they went in the hospital for," added Pakyz.

The number of hospitalizations for C. diff have tripled in the last decade. In 2010, 326,800 Americans ended up in the hospital with the infection.

According to the Centers for Disease control it kills more than 14,000 Americans a year. But a recent investigation by USA Today, found the number is twice has high. The bacteria is actually linked in hospital records to more than 30,000 deaths a year.

Patients go into the hospital to give birth or have surgery and end up staying longer with C. diff. Most of the people dying are the elderly, but children and pregnant women are also at risk.

"Over the past several years we're seeing more cases of it. We're seeing cases that are more severe and we're now starting to see cases that appear not to be associated with healthcare," said Dr. Edmond.

Amy Pakyz is a licensed pharmacist. She's in the middle of a $600,000 dollar federally funded grant project at the VCU Medical Center. She's researching C. diff and whether hospitals can lower C. diff rates by monitoring antibiotic use.

"To solve a lot of these infectious disease problems we're going to have to use what we have more wisely," said Pakyz.

For hospitals, the war on C. diff is three fold. Staff must monitor how much and what kinds of antibiotics are prescribed. They must wash hands frequently and keep hospital rooms extremely clean.

For the first time ever, this year all hospitals that take medicaid and medicare patients will have to report their C. diff cases to the government. This means, hospitals with higher rates of C. diff infections could be penalized monetarily.  We'll continue to monitor this and report when there's data available for the number of C. diff cases happening in Richmond area hospitals and nursing homes.

Tonight at 11, Rachel investigates a medical breakthrough practiced in our area to defeat the superbug, but a warning - it may also make you queasy just to think about it.

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