Many of us would like to imagine hospitals, nursing homes and medical clinics as sterile places where people go to be treated. The fact is, though, many of those patients often contract an even worse condition that they one they went in for. And thousands of them die.
This week the US Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, issued an advisory for healthcare professionals working in all medical facilities about a particularly nasty little bacterium known as Clostridium difficile. While this bacterium can live harmlessly in the colons of healthy people it can be absolutely deadly to people whose colons haven't had a chance to get back to normal after a course of antibiotics. In fact, C. difficile infections kill 14,000 Americans every year.
This germ is especially dangerous to people taking what are called "broad" antibiotics because those drugs kill off pretty much your entire population of intestinal flora. Broad spectrum antibiotics work like the broad spectrum weed killers you've probably used in your lawn--they kill everything they touch. Good germs, bad germs; they're all the same to these drugs.
When that happens it sets up a perfect environment for C. difficile to take over. Experts at the CDC estimate that these preventable infections cause 337,000 hospital stays every year and cost our medical system over $1 billion.
And these little buggers are hard to kill, too. In its advisory to doctors and nurses the CDC reminded them that hand sanitizers won't kill the bacteria and ordinary handwashing isn't always enough to keep caregivers from spreading the germ from one patient to another.
So what do you do? Well, if you're a patient the CDC recommends common sense approaches like making sure you use all your medications exactly as prescribed and always wash your hands after using the toilet. If you develop diarrhea after receiving medical treatment, they advise, try to use a bathroom of your own and make sure that the bathroom you do use is very clean.
Doctors and nurses are being advised to keep people with C. difficile infections away from others and to use bleach-based cleaners to clean their treatment areas.