A micrograph image of C. difficile bacteria is shown in a handout photo. ((U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness says random checks in Cape Breton hospitals have shown "significant improvements" in the fight against Clostridium difficile.

Kevin McNamara, the deputy minister of health, told the province's Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday that staff performed unannounced inspections at hospitals in the Cape Breton District Health Authority to try to restore public confidence.

"To help us determine the level of compliance and practise and recommendations, our staff made an unannounced visit this summer and saw significant improvements," he said.

"We will continue to work to ensure the lessons learned from these outbreaks support ongoing improvements in Cape Breton and across our province."

C. difficile is a bacteria which causes diarrhea and abdominal pain and is spread person to person. It is commonly found in the intestine, but infections can be life-threatening for those taking antibiotics or who have serious pre-existing health issues.

The Cape Breton District Health Authority was hit with two outbreaks of C. difficile in 2011. In the spring of that year, an outbreak was declared when 49 patients across the district contracted the infection and the bacteria was implicated in half a dozen hospital deaths.

Following that outbreak, the Cape Breton Regional Hospital introduced new cleaning materials and procedures as well as improved equipment, but another outbreak occurred mid-December and was linked to four more deaths.

14 of 20 recommendations met

The outbreaks lead to a scathing report from Nova Scotia's auditor general, who concluded the outbreaks might have been avoided if staff had used proper cleaning methods to prevent the spread of infections.

Dianne Calvert Simms, the CEO of the Cape Breton District Health Authority, told the Public Accounts Committee that last year's outbreak was "truly unfortunate."

"Out of 20 recommendations made by the auditor general, 70 per cent have been met. The remaining 30 per cent or six recommendations continue as a work in progress," Simms said Wednesday.

"We expect these to be completed by the end of December."

Simms said as part of implementing the auditor general's recommendations, the health authority has hired the equivalent of 3.5 full-time infection control practitioners.

McNamara admitted his department has had shortcomings in the past.

"Two years ago we were looking at auditor general reports. We were probably the worst," he said.

"I made a commitment to the auditor general and working with our staff to go from worst to best. We're not there yet but we're moving in that direction and we have done a tremendous amount of work to catch up."