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Clostridium difficile

Also known as: C.diff, C. difficile; Causes C. difficile infection (CDI) 

Industry of Interest: Healthcare

Classification: Bacteria

Microbiology: Microbiology: Clostridium difficile is a Gram-positive spore forming rod. C. difficile was first identified in the 1930s, but its medical importance as a cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and colitis (inflammation of the colon) was not recognised until the mid-1970s.
C. difficile is now a common cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea.  An epidemic clone, called NAP1/027, emerged in the early 2000s and is associated with a dramatic increase in the incidence and severity of C. difficile disease.


Habitat and transmission: C. difficile is an anaerobic bacterium that produces spores in response to stress. C. difficile resides in anaerobic sections of the human intestines. For reasons that are not well understood, around two thirds of young children carry C. difficile in their gut without developing C. Difficileinfection (CDI). Asymptomatic carriage of C. difficile is much less common in adults – typically only 3-5% of healthy adults and 20-40% of hospitalised adults. C. difficile spores are transmitted by the faecal-oral route. They are difficult to eradicate from the environment and can be spread via the hands of healthcare workers.

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Detection of the C. difficile toxin using enzyme immunoassays (EIA) has been the mainstay of CDI diagnosis. However, recent data indicate that the sensitivity of EIA tests for the C. difficile toxin is poor and can be as low as 50%; PCR-based methods improve the sensitivity of detection and are beginning to replace EIAs. This has resulted in elevated rates of CDI in hospitals where testing has switched to more sensitive methods through improved detection of C. Difficilerather than increased transmission.


Patients with CDI are usually treated with antibiotics (principally vancomycin and metronidazole), which kill the C. difficile cells producing the toxin.6 In severe cases, surgery may be required to remove the colon (colectomy).  Clinical presentations with the NAP1/027 strain appear to be more serious than other C. difficile strains, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality. These clinical properties are associated with increased toxin production and increased resistance to the fluoroquinolones and poor clinical response to metronidazole, the two mainstays of treatment for CDI.   Alternative therapies such as new antibiotics, monoclonal antibodies, a vaccine and novel biotherapeutics (faecal transplant) are being explored.

Prevention and control:

C. difficile spores are particularly hardy and able to survive in the environment for extended periods of time, resist the effects of alcohol gels and some disinfectants, and spread on healthcare workers’ hands. Prevention and control measures include hand hygiene using soap and water, isolation of infected patients, contact precautions (such as glove and gown use), enhanced environmental decontamination and restriction of the use of high-risk antimicrobial agents.  Widespread environmental contamination with C. Difficileoccurs and is difficult to eradicate using conventional methods. Indeed, admission to a room previously occupied by a patient with CDI significantly increases the chances of acquisition.  Several studies indicate that the elimination of C. difficile using Bioquell hydrogen peroxide vapour (HPV) reduces the incidence of CDI.

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