A group of Calgary doctors working on a study to combat one of the leading causes of hospital-associated diarrhea say there is real promise with a probiotic supplement.

Clostridium difficile, better known as C. diff, is a bacteria that can be established in the colon. Sickness from it can last a few days but the pathogen also has the potential to lead to a fatal condition called pseudomembranous colitis.

Those susceptible to C. diff infections are those who are currently admitted to hospital and prescribed antibiotics. Those drugs usually eliminate all sorts of bacteria in the body, including beneficial ones, leaving the patients open to infection.

However, since a study began in 2017 that used a probiotic supplement alongside antibiotics in Calgary hospitals, doctors with the University of Calgary have seen a 30 percent decrease in the amount of patients getting sick from C. diff.

Dr. John Conly, with the Cumming School of Medicine, says the result is very encouraging.

“Any amount of a drop is significant. The literature suggested that we might see as much as 60 percent but we’ll see at the end of the day when we do our final analysis on it. But certainly, 30 percent is one out of every three patients may not develop C. difficile and, in my mind, that’s a big success.”

Dr. Conly says there is a serious risk for patients infected with C. diff to become dangerously dehydrated to the point where their life is at risk.

According to statistics, 1,000 Albertans every year develop C. diff while in hospital and as many as one in 20 of those patients will die.

The probiotic trial is changing those numbers, he says.

“The preliminary results are encouraging, but they are preliminary. We do have to go through a formal statistical analysis but at this point in time, absolutely, we are very encouraged.”

If those results can stand up, then probiotics could become a standard treatment in Alberta hospitals. There’s also a possibility they could be adopted nationwide.

“This is the first large, multi-hospital, system-wide process to be able to administer probiotics as a means to improve gut health and prevent both C. difficile infection and antibiotic diarrhea. If it’s successful in the way it’s appearing to be, this will be a major initiative not only in Alberta but I would hope hospitals across the country would look at quite seriously.”

The full study lasts three years and tens of thousands of people are expected to participate.

(With files from Kevin Green)