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Little-known infection a danger to seniors


In mid-July, Arthur J. Sommas 86-year-old father fell at his home in Waterbury. He went to Waterbury Hospital for treatment of a compressed disk. After a nine-day stay, he was released to a convalescent home to recuperate.

Within a week, he was back at the hospital, where he died from a Clostridium difficile infection.

About two weeks later, Somma’s mother-in-law, Charlotte Davis, 77, of Wolcott, also died from the infection known as C-diff. Davis had gone to Saint Mary’s Hospital for lung surgery, then into a convalescent home.

Somma, having lost two close relatives, is trying to alert people to the dangers posed by the little-known infection that killed the couple.

“Here are two different scenarios, different hospitals. Neither passed from the conditions they initially went to hospitals for, but from C-diff,” Somma said.

C-diff is a bacteria that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon. It is spread by spores in feces and commonly affects seniors in hospitals or nursing homes after the use of antibiotic medicines.

“There have been many episodes of the infection all across the United States, in Canada and Europe,” said Dr. Michael Simms, director of infectious diseases at Saint Mary’s Hospital.

Somma found information about the infection on the Internet, but wonders why doctors and nurses in hospitals and convalescent homes are not taking more precautions.

“Normal cleaning agents do not clean it,” Somma said. “So, when it gets on clothing you can wash it and it could still be on the clothing or in the bedding.”

The C-diff. bacteria produce spores that can be ingested or remain in a room for days or months.

The incubation period varies depending on how many spores were ingested.

People can become infected if they touch items or surfaces that are contaminated with feces and then touch their mouth or mucous membranes. The bacteria can be spread by health care workers to other patients, or they can contaminate surfaces.

“Someone who is older, has diabetes, kidney or lung problems, is not likely to survive C-diff,” Simms said.

C-diff can grow in people who are taking antibiotics.

Treatment includes stopping the antibiotics and treating with a different antibiotic. A person can get C-diff within seven days from the time of exposure, or even months later.

It is more often fatal than most infections because two toxins are released that may cause the colon to rupture.

Diagnosing C-diff includes testing for toxins in the stool and performing a colonoscopy.

Treatment can include removing the colon or putting antibiotics in an enema then inserting it in the colon.

There is a new strain of C-diff that does not involve patients having taken antibiotics.

“There have been healthy people not hospitalized, coming in and dying from C-diff,” Simms said.

Simms said there has been an increase in the mutation of genes that produce the infection.

Preventing the spread of C-diff means washing hands with soap and water often, especially after using the restroom and, of course, before eating. Bathroom surfaces must be cleaned regularly using household detergents and disinfectants.

Linda Brown, infection control specialist at Saint Mary’s, said patients have to be isolated to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

“C-diff is a spore-producing organism. So we can’t use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but soap and water,” Brown said.

Bleach is used to clean surfaces from bedside tables to bathroom toilets and stethoscopes, she added.

The patient’s room is marked so visitors and nurses will know before entering what precautions to take.

Besides caregivers washing hands, visitors also must practice hand hygiene. — AP

One Response to “Little-known infection a danger to seniors”

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