Diarrhea Superbug Evolving Thanks to Sugary American Diets

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Scientists are warning that a superbug is evolving to spread in hospitals and thrive on high-sugar Western diets.

The bacterium, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), causes watery diarrhea, which could lead to severe dehydration. According to a study that was published in the Journal of Global Health, it caused about 500,000 infections and nearly 30,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2012.

American Diet Causing Diarrhea Superbug to evolve
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Bacteria Evolving to Live on Sugar, Survives Disinfectants and Bleach

The bug appears to be gradually splitting into two species, with one increasingly evolving to live in the guts of those with poor, sugar-rich diets, and also growing better at avoiding the harsh disinfectants used to clean hospitals. Research suggests that the superbug may also linger on the sheets in hospital beds, even after they have been bleached.

It was discovered by scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The researchers looked at the genetic differences of nearly 1,000 strains of C. diff, taken from humans, animals, and the environment from across 33 different countries.

Emerging Bug Spreads Easily, Found in Hospital Patients

What they found was a rapidly emerging new species that survives despite harsh hospital disinfectants, and spreads easily. According to research, poor diets are making the problem worse.

“Human lifestyles can drive bacteria to form new species so they can spread more effectively,” says Dr. Trevor Lawley, the senior author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute. The research shows that strains of C.diff bacteria have evolved “in response to modern diets and healthcare systems.”

The newly emerging species, which has been named C. difficile clade A, has evolved differences including forming spores with greater resistance to hospital disinfectants, and changes in genes allowing it to feed on simple sugars. It made up a whopping 70 percent of the samples that were taken from hospital patients.

Using the Research to Make Changes to Diets and Healthcare Policies

Dr. Lawley also said that their research shows that “focusing on diet and looking for new disinfectants could help in the fight against this bacteria.” This means that making sure hospital food is as healthy and sugar-free as possible, plus encouraging people to make changes in their diet, might be the first step in fighting this superbug.

Researchers are also hoping that studying the evolution of C. diff will lead to better infection control.

Prof. Brendan Wren from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine notes that this research can help them understand “how other dangerous pathogens evolve by adapting to changes in human lifestyles and healthcare regimes,” which could ultimately “inform healthcare policies.”