For the UK authorities harried by the super bug Clostridium difficile (C diff), good news at hand.
A probiotic drink can stave of the hospital infection, researchers say.
Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a bacterium that is present naturally in the gut of around 3% of adults and 66% of children.
C. diff doesnt cause any problems in healthy people. However, some antibiotics that are used to treat other health conditions can interfere with the balance of good bacteria in the gut. When this happens, C. diff bacteria can multiply and cause symptoms such as diarrhoea and fever.
Because C. diff infections are usually caused by antibiotics, most cases usually happen in a healthcare environment such as a hospital or care home. Older people are most at risk from infection, with the majority of cases (80%) occurring in people over the age of 65.
The number of C. diff cases has risen from 22,000 a year in 2002 to almost 45,000 in 2004. One of the main reasons for this rise is the improvement in tests to diagnose the infection, but there has clearly been an increase in the number of cases.
C. diff infections can be prevented by good hygiene practices in healthcare environments. However, it is extremely contagious and is spread very easily.
Authorities assert that most people with a C. diff infection make a full recovery and fatalities are rare. But of late there has been reports of deaths resulting from hospital infections in UK and the working of the NHS has been harshly criticized.
It is in such a context the findings of Dr Mary Hickson, a research dietician at the Imperial College Faculty of Medicine in London gain significance.
Probiotics are dietary supplements containing potentially beneficial bacteria or yeast, with lactic acid bacteria (LAB) as the most common microbes used. LAB have been used in the food industry for many years, because they are able to convert sugars (including lactose) and other carbohydrates into lactic acid.
Experts found that drinking Actimel, a yoghurt-type drink, reduced the chance of people over 50 getting diarrhoea linked to the potentially-lethal bug. It also cut their risk of diarrhoea related to antibiotic treatment and researchers predicted it could save the NHS money.
Those given the probiotic drink had suffered far less diarrhoea. Only 12% developed antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, compared with 34% of the group given the long-life milkshake. No-one in the probiotic group had diarrhoea linked to C diff, compared with 17% in the long-life milkshake group.
C diff is responsible for around 15 to 25% of all cases of diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use, mostly occurring in older people after they have stopped taking their antibiotic course, the researchers noted.
Dr Hickson said: "We are not saying that a probiotic can cure C diff because the trial was to prevent the diarrhoea associated with it from happening. The trial found no cases of C diff diarrhoea among those who received the probiotic. It will reduce the risk of getting diarrhoea and this would apply not only to patients taking broad-spectrum antibiotics in hospital but also those taking them at home."