Eastern Health has revealed that three patients with the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's have died.

In a news release, the health board said six patients in total tested positive for the potentially deadly disease, but as of Monday morning, only one patient continued to have symptoms and has been isolated within the hospital.

In a news conference on Monday, Eastern Health CEO Vickie Kaminski and Dr. Natalie Bridger, the health authority's infectious disease specialist, said they don't believe the C. difficile infections caused the patients' deaths.

"On the review that Dr Bridger has done she has not found evidence that the patients who died died from C. difficile," said Kaminski. "Although they had C. difficile when they died, they succumbed to their other illnesses."

Eastern Health said the C. difficile cases started with an outbreak of gastro-intestinal disease on the Health Sciences Centre's Ward Four South A on Feb.19.

On Feb. 20, tests confirmed a C. difficile infection had been found.

Testing may determine origin of outbreak

Eastern Health said it is trying to determine whether the bacteria spread from patient to patient in hospital, or was brought in independently by each patient, and it has sent C. difficile samples to a lab in Winnipeg for testing. 

If the lab finds all the patients had the same strain of the disease, that would be more evidence to suggest that some of the patients acquired C. difficile in hospital.

Eastern Health said it sees about 50 cases of C. difficile at its facilities annually.

Improper hand washing

The news came at a time when Eastern Health has been trying to raise awareness of infection control measures.

An internal audit at the health authority found fewer staff members were properly washing their hands in 2012 compared to 2011.

Officials said hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent transmission of C. difficile.