Over the course of the last decade, hospitals across the U.S. have been fighting outbreaks of so-called healthcare-associated infections. For those unfamiliar with HAIs, they are defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "infections that patients acquire during the course of receiving healthcare treatment for other conditions."
The problem with HAIs is essentially twofold. First, they can develop and spread very quickly among patients. (According to the CDC, roughly 1 in every 20 hospital patients will develop an HAI). Second, they are especially virulent, meaning they can prove devastating or even deadly to the health of otherwise vulnerable hospital patients.
One type of HAI that many hospital patients have the misfortune of developing is a Clostridium difficile -- or C. diff -- infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, C. difficile is a bacterium that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon. It is typically spread when hospital workers -- physicians, nurses, aides, etc. -- fail to wash their hands or when otherwise contaminated surfaces are not properly sanitized.
"Patients in the hospital tend to be more vulnerable to this infection," said one infectious disease specialist. "Often times they are elderly with weakened immune systems, but patients of all ages can get infected."
Statistics show that as many as half a million people develop C. diff infections every year and, even more disturbing, they are becoming harder to treat.
Interestingly, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston are currently taking part in a global vaccine trial designed to eradicate C. diff infections once and for all.
Here, the primary goal of the three-year study covering tens of thousands of patients in 200 countries is to develop a viable vaccine that could be given to especially vulnerable patients at the outset of their hospital stay, thereby shielding them from the illness.
Here's hoping that the study produces real results in the fight against C. diff and other HAIs. In the meantime, those who have suffered serious harm or lost a loved one because of an HAI caused by otherwise negligent hospital sterilization practices should consider speaking with an experienced attorney to learn more about their rights and options.
Source: WBZ-TV, "Boston hospital testing vaccine for common 'C. Diff' infection," Kate Merrill, Feb. 18, 2014; The Mayo Clinic, "Disease and conditions: C. difficile infection," July 2013