The UK could soon be at the forefront in the fight against hospital bugs if a novel clinical trial designed to assess the potential of using probiotics against infections such as Clostridium difficile proves successful.

More than 30% of older people who are admitted to hospital need treatment with antibiotics. But a side effect of antibiotics is that they also kill off ‘healthy’ bacteria in the gut, allowing other micro-organisms that can cause antibiotic associated (AAD) or the potentially fatal C. difficile associated diarrhoea (CDD) to colonise patients.

Researchers will investigate whether giving patients a probiotic alongside an antibiotic will slash the rate of subsequent infections and diarrhoea. The £1.2 million PLACIDE trial - which is being run by Swansea University's School of Medicine, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University NHS Trust and the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, with funding by the National Institute of Health Research - aims to test the theory in around 3,000 patients aged over 65 at five hospitals over the next three years.

Prevention and control of hospital-acquired infections has fast become a health priority, given that they claim thousands of lives every year and place a considerable burden on already stretched health services, with a single episode of CDD costing the NHS as much as £4,000.

It seems, however, that some headway is being made curtailing the prevalence of C. difficile, with the latest figures from the Health Protection Agency showing that, for the April to June 2008 quarter, there was a reduction of 18% in the number of cases in over 65s compared with the previous quarter, a substantial 38% lower than the same period of 2007.