A relatively new, extremely toxic strain of bacteria has been found in hospitals and other health care facilities in the Phoenix metro area, Maricopa County health officials said.
Phoenix-area hospitals fight toxic 'supergerm'
The germ is known as Clostridium difficile (kloh-STRID'-ee-uhm dif-uh-SEEL') and has long plagued the medical profession by increasing the amount of illness in patients.
But this is the first time a new strain of the germ that carries at least 20 times as much toxin as the original strain is believed to have been linked to patient illness and deaths in Arizona, according to health officials.
County officials said at least 10 patients have fallen severely ill from the new strain since early March. Two of them died, although the germ has not been named conclusively as the cause of death.
All the patients were elderly and suffered from health problems. Healthy and younger people usually don't get the germ.
"Assuming this continues to evolve, it is going to be a real pain for our health care communities," said Dr. Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
Like other "supergerms," all strains of Clostridium difficile are resistant to powerful antibiotics, and the infection is difficult and expensive to treat. The germ causes pronounced diarrhea and, in severe cases, can lead to inflammation of the colon, which can be fatal.
The number of cases has risen sharply over the past decade, to nearly 500,000 in 2007, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Arizona Republic first learned of an outbreak of the strain last month after filing a state Public Records Law request to obtain a health alert issued by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The alert contained no information about how the outbreak started, which hospitals were involved or how many patients were affected. County officials maintained that they were not obligated to provide that information.
This week, nonprofit Banner Health told the Republic that Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa had identified the strain after seeing some patients become very ill. The hospital alerted the county to the problem in early March.
Like many other states, Arizona does not track incidences of the germ.
But a Republic analysis of hospital-discharge records shows that from Jan. 1, 2008, to Dec. 31, 2009, patients at Arizona hospitals were identified as having infections of the germ more than 15,400 times.
The bug is becoming a major problem for hospitals because it spreads easily. Traditional cleansers and hand sanitizers fail to neutralize its spores, which are often spread through fecal-oral contact. The best ways to deter the germ is with bleach and aggressive hand-washing.
Banner said officials at Baywood took immediate steps to control the outbreak, including isolating patients who exhibited symptoms of illness. They also sanitized surfaces and equipment throughout the hospital with bleach and instituted new hand-washing protocols for all patients.
They believe they have the outbreak under control.
County public-health officials say it's likely that this strain will continue to crop up in community and health care facilities.
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