Special Report: Super-bug behind "alarming epidemic"

May 28, 2008 1:48:38 PM PDT
This time, C-difficile bacteria is stronger, more toxic... and creating a major health threat.

Like many youngsters, 3 year old Schuyler and Sarah parsons have had ear infections again and again.

But once, right after a round of antibiotics, their dad, Richie Parsons, remembers, "All of a sudden we started seeing what we thought was a stomach virus."

That "stomach bug" dragged on and on ... Leaving the twins dehydrated from diarrhea.

Susanne Petrosky, a young mother in Perkasie, Bucks County, had a similar experience


Not long after she finished some antibiotics, her stomach started acting up.

After several weeks of not feeling right, she suddenly got extremely sick.

Petrosky says, "I couldn't get dressed, I couldn't take care of my children. I couldn't do anything."

In both cases, the culprit was c-diff, short for clostridium difficile.

About 3 per cent of people carry the bug without knowing it.

Normal intestinal bacteria usually keep c-diff in check.

But when antibiotics kill off those good bacteria, c-diff can take over.

It makes a toxin that poisons the intestinal wall.

And it hides in spores that can live for months.

C-diff infections used to be confined to hospitals or nursing homes.

But a nasty, new strain has emerged.

Dr. Jack Kelly, an infectious disease specialist at Abington Memorial Hospital, says, "The toxin, which is responsible for the tissue injury that we're seeing, produced a level 16 to 23, 25 fold."

Reports presented this month to the Infectious Disease Society call it "an alarming epidemic."

And C-diff is now attacking healthy young people outside hospitals.

Susanne's son later came down with C-diff, too, as did a guest at her Bucks County home.

It was an unwelcome milestone... the first community outbreak documented by the Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Felicia Lewis, who tracks c-diff cases for the CDC and the Philadelphia Health Department, has discovered pregnant women run a slightly higher risk of infection. In fact, one in Philadelphia died in early 2006. She never had contact with a hospital or nursing home. It is possible she picked up C-diff in her doctor's office.

Others running a high risk of C-diff infections are people who use heartburn drugs called proton-pump inhibitors - such as Nexium, Prevacid, and Prilosec.

To protect yourself, thorough hand-washing at every bathroom visit is a must.

Also, don't take antibiotics unless you really need them.

Dr. Lewis says the fight against this new c-diff is just beginning. She says, "Until we know a little bit more about how the disease is contracted and spread in the community, we're not going to know how best to fix it."

The Parsons twins battled C-diff for more than a year, with repeated hospital stays. They finally recovered, but not until after a complex process of restoring their natural gut bacteria.

Susanne Petrosky spent days in the hospital, and months more taking stro

ng medications. Even now, she's not sure the C-diff is gone for good.