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The notion of using human feces to treat sickness or disease goes back hundreds of years, with references showing up as early as the fourth century in medical accounts.

But the concept has garnered renewed attention in recent years, largely as a result of Clostridium difficile outbreaks.

C. difficile are bacteria that live in the gut. For most healthy people, they are not a problem. But infections can occur when people take drugs for, say, cancer or a urinary tract infection. Those drugs can kill healthy gut bacteria, allowing C. difficile to flourish and produce toxins that can cause diarrhea, cramps and fever. In some cases, the condition is fatal. C. difficile is the most frequent cause of infectious diarrhea in hospitals and long-term care facilities in Canada.

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Antibiotics can bring C. difficile under control. But people who get a C. difficile infection are prone to getting another, and each time, it is more difficult to treat.

In a fecal transplant, a healthy person's stool is introduced into a sick person's system to "rebalance" intestinal bacteria. To date, there has been only one randomized clinical trial of the procedure, but results are encouraging. Researchers are talking about fecal transplants' potential to treat other conditions, including Crohn's disease and even autism.

Amid the buzz over fecal transplants, at least in relation to C. difficile, it is important to keep prevention in mind, Fraser Health's Ed Auersperg said.

At Fraser Health's Ridge Meadows hospital, C. difficile infection rates dropped by about 65 per cent over the past three years as a result of measures that included stepped-up cleaning, using disposable bed pans and isolating infected patients. "We also trained our doctors and patients not to demand broad-spectrum antibiotics and to wash their hands," he says.

Hand-washing is considered the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to limit hospital-aquired infections, including C. difficile.

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