Report reveals threat of 'C.diff' infection

Most people have never heard of the infection nicknamed “C.diff.” Others heard of it first at the worst of times—during a hospital stay, or at the bedside of an ailing relative or friend.

I first learned about the severity of Clostridium difficile last spring while writing a story about Tony Lewis, whose broken femur brought him to a Sacramento hospital. Within days, he was diagnosed with the infection that killed him. 

Now we know more than ever before about C.difficile here in California, thanks to a new, largely overlooked report from the state Department of Public Health. 

It contains C.difficile numbers and rates for 350 of the state’s 383 licensed general acute care hospitals. 
The state’s general acute care hospitals reported a total of 13,327 cases of C.difficile deemed “hospital acquired” in the 12 months ending March 31, 2011, the report states.

Hospitals are still reviewing the state’s numbers, and I’ll be writing more about this and other infection reports soon. 

The report makes clear that C. difficile is a major California public health threat.

“It’s virulent. It’s hard to get rid of. Probably every hospital in America has had a C.diff outbreak, and it’s a real challenge to deal with an outbreak when it happens,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project.

Her group, part of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has lobbied here and nationally for public reporting of hospital acquired infections.

C.difficile bacteria, found in human feces, can spread on the hands of hospital workers.

Stricken patients can suffer diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, and, in some cases, colon rupture and death. Hardy spores can linger in hospital wards for months.

C. difficile doesn’t get the media attention of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a better known type of infection that patients can also pick up in hospitals.

Even so, it is outstripping MRSA and now ranks as the most common type of hospital-acquired infection in the country, according to recent studies.

It can travel back and forth between hospitals and long-term care facilities.

The new report divides hospitals into two types—general acute care facilities and long-term acute care facilities—because long-term patients can be at higher risk of infection, state health officials wrote in a Monday email.

The new report measures the rate of hospital-acquired C.Diff at a particular facility using a rate calculated by the number of cases per 10,000 patient days.

The long-term hospitals reported a rate of 18.8, compared to 9.4 for general acute-care hospitals.

This was the second year the state health department made hospital infection rates public, as required by a 2008 state law. Its first effort, in December 2010, was marred by collection problems and flawed data.

This time, the state required hospitals to file its infection cases through a network maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, to try to assure consistency.

Even so, state officials said that consumers should not use the C.diff data to compare hospitals. That may be possible in future reports, they added.

Stay tuned. 

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