'Super Bug' Linked to Antibiotic Use Kills Nearly 15,000 Annually

PHOTO: C. Diff causes more than 500,000 infections each year, a new CDC report says.PlayGetty Images
WATCH C. Diff Infections on the Rise and Not Just in Hospitals

A stubborn, hard-to-treat “super bug” causes more than 450,000 infections a year and is directly responsible for nearly 15,000 deaths in the United States, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed today.

Clostridium difficile, or C. Diff, is a bacterial infection that leads to inflammation of the colon, the agency explained. The bacterium is found in feces, the agency said, and is spread by hand contact or contaminated surfaces.

"It’s the most common infection picked up in hospitals," said ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser. "The thing about this infection is you can pick it up and it can cause no problems. Then, you take an antibiotic and it takes over."

More than 80 percent of C. Diff deaths were people 65 or older, with residents of nursing homes especially vulnerable to infection, the report said.

“C. difficile infections cause immense suffering and death for thousands of Americans each year,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said.

Hospital stays and especially long-term antibiotic use seem to up the risk of C. Diff infection.

“Antibiotics kill off beneficial bacteria in the gut which fight infection, leaving space for C. Diff to come in and release its toxins,” explained Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert with Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

Studies show that more than half of patients receive antibiotics at some point in their stay, and up to 50 percent of antibiotic use is unnecessary. Over-prescribing antibiotics, combined with poor infection control, may allow the spread of C. diff and other bacteria within a facility and to other facilities when a sick patient is transferred, the CDC report speculated.

The CDC report said preventing and controlling C. Diff should be a national priority. The infection costs up to $4.8 billion each year in excess health care costs, the agency reported.

“You can fight it with hand hygiene, early diagnosis, isolating sick patients and curtailing excessive antibiotic use,” Schaffner said.

Meticulously cleaning surgical instruments would also help, Schaffner noted. Seven people were diagnosed last week with another drug-resistant "super bug" known as CRE at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center after undergoing endoscopy procedures with instruments that may have been contaminated.