"First came stomach cramps, which left Christina Shultz doubled over and weeping in pain. Then came nausea and fatigue -- so overwhelming she couldn't get out of bed for days. Just when she thought things couldn't get worse, the nastiest diarrhea of her life hit -- repeatedly forcing her into the hospital.
Doctors finally discovered that the 35-year-old Hilliard, Ohio, woman had an intestinal bug that used to be found almost exclusively among older, sicker patients in hospitals and was usually easily cured with a dose of antibiotics. But after months of treatment, Shultz is still incapacitated.
"It's been a nightmare," said Shultz, a mother of two young children. "I just want my life back."Shultz is one of a growing number of young, otherwise healthy Americans who are being stricken by the bacterial infection known as Clostridium difficile -- or C. diff -- which appears to be spreading rapidly around the country and causing unusually severe, sometimes fatal illness.
That is raising alarm among health officials, who are concerned that many cases may be misdiagnosed and are puzzled as to what is causing the microbe to become so much more common and dangerous.
"It's a new phenomenon. It's just emerging," said L. Clifford McDonald of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "We're very concerned. We know it's happening, but we're really not sure why it's happening or where this is going."
"There are no national statistics, but the number of infections in hospitals appears to have doubled from 2000 to 2003 and there may be as many as 500,000 cases each year, McDonald said. Other estimates put the number in the millions.
The emerging problem first gained attention when unusually large and serious outbreaks began turning up in other countries. In Canada, for example, Quebec health officials reported last year that perhaps 200 patients died in an outbreak involving at least 10 hospitals. Similar outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.
After the CDC began receiving reports of severe cases among hospital patients in the United States -- and in people who had never, or just briefly, been hospitalized -- it launched an investigation.
In the Dec. 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the CDC reported that an analysis of 187 C. diff samples found that the unusually dangerous strain that caused the Quebec cases was also involved in outbreaks at eight health care facilities in Georgia, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
"This strain has somehow been able to get into hospitals widely distributed across the United States," said Dale N. Gerding of Loyola University in Chicago, who helped conduct the analysis. "We're not sure how."