Toronto

C. difficile outbreak over in 3 Ontario hospitals

The number of Ontario hospitals fighting outbreaks of the persistent superbug C. difficile is down to seven from 10 earlier in the week, Health Minister Deb Matthews said Sunday.

The number of Ontario hospitals fighting outbreaks of the persistent superbug C. difficile is down to seven from 10 earlier in the week, Health Minister Deb Matthews says.

"Last week, there were 10 hospitals that had declared outbreaks. I'm happy to report that three of those hospitals are now successfully free of — no longer in outbreak mode — for C. difficile," she said Sunday.

Four of the hospitals where the infection is still raging are in the Niagara region, where the outbreak is concentrated, acting chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said at a press conference alongside Matthews. The others are in Guelph, Orangeville and Mississauga.

An outbreak is declared when there are a certain number of cases that appear to start in a hospital. Cases identified as C. difficile in patients brought into the hospital do not count.

Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, says C. difficile is common in hospitals. ((Frank Gunn/CP))

The hospital outbreak continues until 30 days after the report of last case that was described as hospital-caused.

The Niagara hospitals have accounted for 20 deaths since May in which C. difficile was a factor. Both the minister and doctor pointed out that C. difficile can contribute to deaths, but it's very difficult  to determine it caused them.

So far, because of the difficulty in identifying the cause of death, only the Niagara hospitals have deaths linked to the bug, a ministry spokeswoman said. 

About five per cent of the population carry the bacteria, but may show no symptoms.

However, in the confined area of a hospital with a population that is weakened by other ailments, it can prove fatal.

The Niagara hospitals also account for more than 90 current cases.

The strain of C. difficile that's now hitting Ontario hospitals first appeared about a decade ago. It caused a huge outbreak in Quebec that ended up killing 2,000 people in 2003. Another large outbreak in Ontario killed 62 people five years later.

The bug is common in hospitals, Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said this week.

"It's not going to start in one hospital and spread like wildfire across the province. On the other hand, so far this year across the province the numbers of C. difficile are up," she said.

It's a problem that's proving difficult to tackle, she said.

"Ontario's had for nearly two years a program that's been apparently quite effective against C. difficile — the numbers went down in the first 18 months. But for the last five or six months, the numbers are up again."