updated 2/1/2006 7:13:25 PM ET 2006-02-02T00:13:25

New Jersey is among the states seeing an increase in deaths from an intestinal bacterial infection that most often strikes older hospital patients who have taken antibiotics.

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National occurrences are up as well because, officials say, an overuse of antibiotics for other ailments is killing off the "good" bacteria that used to control the growth of Clostridium difficile bacterium.

In the Garden State, the number of deaths attributed to the infection has doubled since 1997. State hospital discharge data reviewed by The Record of Bergen County found the infection has sickened 10,000 New Jerseyans a year, killing 400 since 1997.

State health officials said Wednesday there were 109 deaths attributable to the C-diff infection in 2003, the most recent year for which figures were available.

In 2004 there were 25 known C-diff outbreaks in New Jersey hospitals, said Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, epidemiologist and deputy health commissioner for New Jersey. An outbreak means at least three instances of C-diff infection in one hospital or nursing home setting within a week.

Of those patients with C-diff, only about 1 percent develop serious complications, Bresnitz said.

The infection has been reported in 15 other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Connecticut, according the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The major factor that contributed to the rise (in C-diff) throughout the country as well as New Jersey is the increasing use of antibiotics," Bresnitz said. "That basically changes the normal flora of the bowel and allows for the overgrowth" of the troublesome bacteria.

C-diff infection is marked by severe diarrhea that persists for more than three days. It can lead to a more serious intestinal condition known as colitis. It is spread by spores in feces, which cannot be killed by alcohol-based anti-bacterial hand cleansers often used in hospitals.

While most of the worst cases have been seen in patients over age 65 who had been treated in hospitals with antibiotics, public health advocates have been perplexed by cases popping up elsewhere in people younger people who had not taken antibiotics.

A study released in December by McGill University researchers suggested that popular heartburn drugs _ proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec, Prevacid and Nexium — could reduce stomach acids that curb C-diff production.

But Dr. L. Clifford McDonald, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC, said other studies have suggested changes in stomach acids are not a factor in C-diff growth.

"The verdict's still out, but it's a very important issue," McDonald said.

Both McDonald and Bresnitz recommended frequent handwashing with hot water and soap, especially after using the bathroom and before eating. McDonald recommended using bleach to clean areas that may have been exposed to feces.

They also recommended that individuals avoid pressing their physicians for antibiotics for common colds, which are usually caused by viruses and not treatable with antibiotics, or taking leftover antibiotics or those belonging to friends or family members.

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