Clostridium difficile – an Emerging Zoonosis?

Posted on by Ali S. Khan

Question mark made of raw meat.

The media has recently given attention to studies [G. Songer; Rodriguez-Palacios A, et al] that isolated a bacterium called Clostridium difficile from meats sold in grocery stores.  C. difficile causes a severe colon infection and is generally acquired in hospitals and long-term care facilities.  Although most of the cases of C. difficile infection are healthcare associated (80%), the other twenty percent of cases are acquired in the community – outside of healthcare settings.  The cause(s) of these infections are still poorly understood.  The recent studies question whether C. difficile in meats is a source of human infection.

Clostridium difficile causes several hundred thousand human infections and several thousand deaths each year in the United States.  In recent years, the number and severity of these infections has been on the rise.  Certain antibiotics can actually improve the growth environment for the bacteria in our gut by decreasing the natural flora that normally protects us.  For this reason, previous use of antibiotics to treat other illnesses is a major risk factor for C. difficile infection.  The elderly and individuals with weakened immune systems are also at great risk of becoming infected.  This occurs mainly by the “so called” fecal-oral route, which I refuse to discuss in a blog.  Careful hand washing and disinfection of contaminated surfaces helps to reduce the spread of infection and are the best preventive measures.

Persons in the community who acquire C. difficile infections generally use antibiotics less frequently, and the causes of their infections are not as straight forward.  They could be getting C. difficile from infected but otherwise healthy persons, food, or visits to healthcare settings.  C. difficile lives in the gut of infected persons or animals, and may be found in healthy pets like cats, dogs or horses.  Healthy adult food producing animals like beef and dairy cattle may also carry the bacteria.  In the studies of retail meat, the rate of C. difficile reported varied from 20-40%. At this time, we do not know how these bacteria got into the meat. We also don’t know of any people getting sick from eating food that contains C. difficile.

So, is C. difficile an emerging zoonosis?  The answer is: we don’t know yet.  CDC will continue to collaborate with various experts in food safety and veterinary medicine to identify research needs and learn more about C. difficile infection in foods.  Our scientists are also working closely with USDA – the government agency responsible for regulating the safety of meat – and sharing emerging information as it becomes available.

Posted on by Ali S. Khan

9 comments on “Clostridium difficile – an Emerging Zoonosis?”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    I know I had C. Diff and my dog was exposed to it. Now he has the most foul flatulence I have ever smelled. It is horrible. Could that be C.Diff?

    I have just been diagnosed with c.dif. The medical personnel who have treated me say I have to have had prior antibiotics or hospital exposure to have picked it up but this does not fit for me. I have been caring for ducks, chickens, horses, pigs, and goats on a rescue farm. The ducks and horses have had intermittent diarrheawith a bad smell. My job has been to clean after them My job has been to clean after them. I developed the same symptoms with a bad odor that smelled like the animals. Smell in horse feces was intermittentwith presence of what looked like mucus and slight blood. I was told that the horses had strongyles but the vet prescribed metronidazole for one of them. I feel strongly that what I have came from the feces of the animals I was cleaning.

    I got C. Diff when my periodontist prescribed clindamycin antibiotic. This is a drug that is on of 3 or 4 that’s well known to kill off all the good bacteria in the gut & all you are left with is C.Diff. Never take that drug! Ask for something else. I have been given flagyl. 5 days no improvement at all. I am looking for good doctor. This problem needs to be more aggressively addressed.

    I have been diagnosed with C-dif. I did take an antibiotic for an abscessed tooth and then 2 1/2 weeks ago experienced a change in my intestinal track. Just diagnosed Monday and have been on antibiotic since Monday. How long am I contagious?

    C. difficile is an organism that lives in the intestinal tract and is spread by contact with infectious stool. C. difficile can be spread to others by direct contact with infectious stool or indirectly by touching contaminated surfaces (e.g., toilet handles, sink faucets). C difficile is not spread by casual contact.

    C. difficile can remain in the intestinal tract for several weeks following treatment and the resolution of symptoms (e.g., diarrhea and cramping). The exact length of time a person is contagious varies from person to person. For this reason we recommend that infection control measures be continued for several weeks after treatment.

    The following strategies are recommended to prevent the transmission of C. difficile:
    • Wash your hands with soap and water after toileting and before preparing food and eating
    • Keep your fingernails short
    • Frequently disinfect surfaces likely to be contaminated with C. difficile, such as toilets and bathroom faucets using an EPA-registered disinfectant that is effective against C. difficile, see https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-k-epas-registered-antimicrobial-products-effective-against-clostridium
    • Wash your hands after cleaning environmental surfaces
    • Avoid sharing personal items such as bath towels and wash clothes; Use a separate bathroom in the home if possible
    • Use paper towels for drying hands instead of cloth hand towels
    • Machine wash bedding, towels and clothing with detergent using regular wash and dry cycles
    • Do not take antibiotics unless they are needed
    • Tell your healthcare providers that you have a history of C. difficile so that antibiotics are prescribed judiciously

    More information on C. difficile can be found on our website at https://www.cdc.gov/hai/organisms/cdiff/cdiff-patient.html

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Page last reviewed: October 9, 2009
Page last updated: October 9, 2009