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New Study Shows a Deadly Hospital Infection Can Travel by Air, Not Just Contact

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A bacterium responsible for potentially fatal hospital-acquired infections not only travels by touch, but also through the air, according to a new study by British researchers.

Study researchers from the Leeds Teaching Hospitals National Health Service Trust and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom studied air and surface samples taken from around patients suffering from Clostridium difficile infections (CDI). Appearing in the June 1, 2010 issue of the Chicago Journal’s Clinical Infectious Disease, the study showed that the bacteria was present in the air samples surrounding 7 of 10 patients and 60% of the time in both air and surface samples.

Clostridium difficile infections most commonly occur in hospital or nursing home settings. The main mode of patient infection is via the hands of healthcare personnel who touch an infected surface and transfer the bacteria to the patient. Patients taking antibiotics, those who undergo gastrointestinal surgery, stay in a healthcare setting for an extended period, have a serious underlying illness or compromised immune system or are elderly are at increased risk for C. difficile infection.

Between 2000 and 2005, C. difficile infections in the United States doubled. In 2005, more than 300,000 people became ill from the bacteria and about 28,600 people died from the infection.

The most common symptoms include watery diarrhea, fever, loss of appetite, nausea, belly pain and tenderness. It can cause life-threatening diseases such as pseudomembranous colitis (PMC), toxic megacolon, perforations of the colon and sepsis. C. difficile is resistant to many antibiotics.

This study is important because doctors previously knew C. difficile only to spread by direct contract to a surface, and infection occurring when a person touches that surface and then touches their mouth, or by contact with infected feces or eating contaminated food. This study does not suggest people contract C. difficile by inhaling the bacteria in the air, but rather that the bacteria travels in the air and lands on surrounding surfaces, where it can then be acquired by touch.

C. difficile can live on surfaces for months. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of registered hospital disinfectants for general use whenever possible in patient-care areas, however there are no disinfectants registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that claim use for eradicating C. difficile.

Study researchers emphasized the need to move patients to a private room as soon as possible after the onset of diarrhea to limit the dissemination of C. difficile.

“We don’t want people to wait for the confirmation,” the study’s senior author, Dr. Mark H. Wilcox, told The New York Times. “By then, the cat’s out of the bag.”