A nasty, sometimes deadly intestinal bug is at least six times more common than was thought, researchers said, based on a survey of hundreds of U.S. hospitals. The bacteria, Clostridium difficile, is resistant to some antibiotics and has become a regular menace in hospitals and nursing homes.
Doctors say it plays a role in hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations each year, and that number has been growing.
The latest study estimates that more than 7,100 hospital patients are infected with it on any given day. That number is between 6.5 and 20 times greater than previous estimates, according to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Researchers from that group presented their findings at a medical conference in Orlando.
"This study shows that C. difficile infection is an escalating issue in our nation's health care facilities," said Dr. William Jarvis, the study's lead investigator, in a prepared statement. Jarvis, formerly a scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a consulting epidemiologist hired by the association.
The new numbers are based on surveys of about 650 U.S. hospitals. Each hospital was asked to pick one day between May and August of this year to review every patient's medical records for documentation of the infection. A total of 1,443 infected patients were identified, and about 70 percent were older than 60.
Past studies have tried to measure the anaerobic bacteria incidence in different ways, making comparisons with previous estimates difficult. However, the researchers believe their latest estimate indicates the bug is far more common than previously believed.
The infection control group recommends that hospitals and nursing homes beef up cleaning efforts, such as using bleach, and that medical staff quickly isolate patients who have C. difficile infection.
Last year, the same researchers released a report that found dangerous, drug-resistant staph bacteria — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — may be infecting as many as 5 percent of hospital and nursing home patients. According to that estimate, MRSA is a more common problem than Clostridium difficile, which infects about 1.3 percent.