Page last updated at 08:45 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008
'Death on the wards'


Professor Hugh Pennington, a bacteriology expert, explains what C.diff is and how hands are the bugs "best friends".

What is Clostridium difficile (C.diff)?

Clostridium difficile is a member of a large group of bacteria, the clostridia, that grow in the absence of oxygen and are able to form heat-resistant spores.

C.diff is a very tough bug that lives in people's intestines. It is common in young children and in people over the age of 75.

When does it occur?

It becomes a problem when a person's normal gut flora is disturbed, for example during antibiotic treatment. As well as doing its job to get rid of harmful bugs in the body, antibiotics also zap away the "friendly bacteria".

Why is C.diff such a problem?

There are very few antibiotics that are effective against C.diff and relapses are common after antibiotic treatment. Without the aid of "friendly bacteria", the C.diff grows and produces poison.

How does it spread?

C.diff is very clever in that it makes spores which are very tough. They can last in the environment for years.

Spores can be spread in the wind, but C.diff's most efficient means of transport are the hands.

It is very easy for the bug to get on the hands and once the hands touch the mouth, it is then very easy for it to travel to the gut.

What is it resistant to?

The bug can withstand heat. It can survive disinfectant and it does not mind alcohol.

What are the symptoms of C.diff?

Symptoms of the bug include mild to severe diarrhoea, blood-stained stools, fever and abdominal cramps.

These symptoms are usually caused by an inflammation of the lining of the large intestine. In rare cases, C.diff can cause peritonitis, an infection of the lining in the abdomen, blood poisoning and tears in the large intestine.

In very rare cases, a C.diff infection can be fatal. The risk of this is higher in elderly people and people who have other very serious health conditions.

Who is Professor Hugh Pennington?

Hugh Pennington is an emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen.

Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Hugh Pennington

He chaired a Scottish Executive established expert group following the E.coli O157 outbreak in central Scotland in 1996.

Prof Pennington also headed a public inquiry into the 2005 E.coli outbreak in Wales in which a five-year-old boy died.

He has also been credited with having made a significant contribution to the science and practice of medical microbiology, to the health of the nation and to public understanding of science.

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