People can get sick from C. difficile infection with very mild symptoms, but it can also be life-threatening.
“You can have a serious colitis related to this. You can get a life-threatening renal disease,” Anastasia Quaglioti, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN.
The most common symptoms are painful diarrhea, a fever, increased gas, abdominal cramping and weight loss. Common forms of treatment include antibiotics, oral rehydration solution or intravenous fluids.
Early treatment is the best, but even if treatment is successful in curing patients, some are unable to feel well enough to be discharged.
Rates of infection have not declined in years.
“It’s partly because we need more information on how many children are actually being diagnosed,” said Quaglioti.
Quaglioti has been studying the genetic mutations of C. difficile bacteria in efforts to get a better idea of how to develop a more effective vaccine.
Just recently, researchers confirmed some of her genetic findings.
Another group of Johns Hopkins researchers recently showed that bacteria are closely linked to certain types of viruses and that susceptibility to C. difficile is similar to the vulnerability of people to respiratory illnesses from bird or bat viruses.
Both of these findings are significant because, even though research shows that a new vaccine could save hundreds of lives a year, production of a new vaccine would require years of research, clinical trials and a great deal of money.
“If this is successful we could have a positive impact on global public health,” Quaglioti said.
In the meantime, researchers are collaborating with other countries to conduct studies to determine exactly how many children are affected.
“How many cases of C. difficile are out there in the community that we don’t know about?” said Quaglioti.
Those numbers are staggering.
“We could double the number of patients with this disease if we used better data,” said Quaglioti.
C. difficile infections in hospitalized patients are on the rise: 1.9 million cases in 2017, about 2.8% of all hospital infections, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This rise of antibiotic use — despite the risks — has played a big role in this increase. This strain of C. difficile was never expected to thrive in people who had not been treated with antibiotics and had different microbiomes.
“Current studies have indicated that at least half of the pathogens that are resistant to current drug therapies are emerging from the human gut,” Quaglioti said.