New Hope for a Nasty Gut Bug

Desperate times, desperate measures: Fecal transplants for severe c. diff.

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About 10 doctors in America are offering fecal transplants, and exchange information through a listserv, Kelly says. For her part, she's now performed 85 of them and reports "no complications or side effects clearly attributable" to the procedure. A few patients gained weight afterwards and one experienced his first flare-up of ulcerative colitis in 30 years. That patient recovered quickly, however, and the C. difficile never returned.

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., about five fecal transplants have been performed with "no real adverse implications," says Sahil Khanna, a Mayo clinic gastroenterologist and author of the clinic's latest study on the impact of C. difficile. He puts the procedure's "cure rate" at upwards of 85 percent. He notes that the more often someone is treated for C. difficile, the more susceptible he is to relapse. Each additional course of antibiotics "tends to disrupt people's flora more and more," Khanna explains.

[See Tending Your Inner Ecosystem]

In the meantime, clinicians and public health officials are working to contain and prevent C. difficile. Patients should wash their hands with soap and water, since alcohol won't kill the bacterial spores, Khanna says. He also advises healthcare facilities to clean with bleach and isolate infected patients. And people everywhere are urged to use antibiotics judiciously. About 50 percent of antibiotic treatments are unnecessary, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The risk of contracting C. difficile is up to 10 times greater while taking an antibiotic and during the month after treatment, says CDC epidemiologist Clifford McDonald. Two to three months later, the risk is still somewhat elevated. "We need to slug it out with some of those" viruses, McDonald says. If you have sinusitis, for example, "just push the fluids, hang in there, do other things to try to get the sinuses drained." However, you should see a doctor if you have loose stool that persists for more than a few days.

And if you do take antibiotics, some experts suggest supplementing your treatment with probiotics, which contain protective bacteria. Some evidence suggests that probiotics may help prevent C. difficile, but much more research is required as scientists don't yet understand which strains of bacteria are needed to fight this infection.

[See 8 Common Digestive Problems and How to End Them]