Dr. Shelly McNeil

Dr. Shelly McNeil, an infectious disease specialist in Halifax, is part of a worldwide drug trial to develop a vaccine for C. difficile. (CBC)

Halifax has been chosen as a test location in a worldwide drug trial to develop the first vaccine for Clostridium difficile, a hospital-based bacterial infection that affects thousands of Canadians each year.

Sanofi Pasteur, the largest company in the world devoted entirely to human vaccines, has sent a test vaccine to the Canadian Research Centre for Vaccinology based at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

"As an infectious disease specialist, I see many patients who got C. difficile after a surgery or during a hospitalization or antibiotics course and spend many years sometimes, battling the infection," said Dr. Shelly McNeil.

"It's a common problem. It's one that's difficult, sometimes, to treat."

McNeil said researchers in Halifax are looking for 25 healthy people who fall into the risk categories — people over the age of 50 who have been repeatedly hospitalized or are about to have surgery.

Researchers will begin clinical trials as soon as they can find volunteers who will get the vaccine — or a placebo — delivered like a flu shot.

"We'll compare a vaccine to a placebo and then we'll follow them for some period of time to watch to see how many people who got the vaccine ultimately develop C. difficile compared to the group that got the placebo," said McNeil.

15,000 volunteers, 17 countries

The study will tell if the vaccine is safe, its side effects and ultimately whether it works, but McNeil said the prospect of a successful vaccine does not lessen the importance of handwashing in hospitals.


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

C. difficile is a bacteria which causes diarrhea and abdominal pain and is spread person to person. It is commonly found in the intestine and 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 four 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 a fifth death.

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.

The clinical trial is expected to take at least five years and will involve 15,000 volunteers in 17 countries.