It's hard to prevent the spread of infection when a large number of ill people are housed in close proximity to each other, as occurs in any hospital setting. A bacterium called Clostridium difficile causes more hospital-acquired infections than any other pathogen, according to Dr. Mark Bennett Pochapin, a gastroenterology specialist with Cornell University Medical Center in New York. Probiotics are currently receiving great interest as a low risk method of addressing this problem.
Clostridium difficile is involved in virtually all cases of pseudomembranous colitis in the U.S., and up to one out of every five cases of diarrhea caused by antibiotic use, according to Pochapin. A probiotic agent called Lactobacillus GG may be of assistance in eradicating Clostridium difficile infection. Probiotics are live microorganisms that deliver healthful benefits when ingested. Lactobacillus GG, a bacterium, was found to be effective in reducing the recurrence of Clostridium difficile infection, and relieving the symptoms of abdominal cramps and diarrhea that often accompany this infection. Pochapin explains that the effects of Lactobacillus GG are thought to be due to its ability to recolonize the intestines with friendly microflora that may have been decimated during antibiotic treatment. His study, titled "The Effect of Probiotics on Clostridium Difficile Diarrhea," was published in the August 2000 issue of the "American Journal of Gastroenterology."
Saccharomyces boulardii is a yeast, rather than a bacterium, but it too has been touted as an effective probiotic agent for fighting Clostridium difficile infection. Sometimes referred to as baker's yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii was studied by Lynne V. McFarland, PhD of the Veterans Administration Puget Sound Health Care System of Washington. McFarland's meta-analysis of probiotics for the prevention of antibiotic associated diarrhea and the treatment of Clostridium difficile disease was published in the April 2006 issue of the "American Journal of Gastroenterology." She found that both Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii reduced cases of diarrhea due to antibiotics, but that Saccharomyces boulardii was the sole probiotic that effectively reduced recurrence of Clostridium difficile disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the Food and Drug Administration regulates probiotics such as Saccharomyces boulardii as dietary supplements, not as drugs to treat disease. The enthusiasm for the use of probiotics in treating infections in hospitalized patients must be tempered by a cautious examination of any potential risks to patients whose immune systems are already compromised.