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Forget bombs and drugs, Angus sniffs out C. difficile

Angus and Teresa Zurberg work to sniff out C. difficile at health facilities around the province. Bill Phillips photo


If you’ve ever had C. difficile, you probably don’t ever want to come close to the super-bug again.

Not so for Teresa Zurberg.

She and her canine pal Angus make a living trying to find clostridium difficile, the most common cause of acute diarrhea in hospitals and long-term care facilities in North America. After injuring her leg, which became infected, Zurberg contracted C. difficile, was hospitalized and “lost 20 pounds in a week.”

Consequently, helping patients avoid contracting C. difficile is a passion and she got involved in unique way of doing that with Angus.

Zurberg and Angus are a team … Angus is specially trained to sniff out C. difficile and Zurberg, the canine detection team manager for Vancouver Coastal Health, is Angus’ handler.

The program started with a pilot project in 2014. Angus was certified to detect C. difficile in 2016. He is a four-year-old English springer spaniel and was the first certified C. difficile detection dog in Canada. He has since been joined by Dodger, another springer spaniel, and the two make up the only fully operational program of this kind in the world.

Angus, and other C. difficile smelling dogs, are trained the same way bomb dogs and drug dogs are trained.

“Bomb dogs really don’t care about bombs, drug dogs really don’t care about drugs,” said Zurberg. “He really doesn’t care C. diff, but what he does care about is finding that C. diff odour gets him what he really wants which is either the treats in my pocket or his tug-toy back pocket … which he would go through fire to get.”

The pair travel around health facilities seeking out the nasty bug that is C. difficile and was in Prince George for two days this week examining health facilities.

“We don’t go into patient rooms,” said Zurberg. “We look at the common areas … the hallways where the equipment is kept, the nursing stations, the shared bathrooms, lounges. We want to see the contamination has been dragged from outside that room where C. diff is.”

The two are accompanied by housekeeping staff who take care of any bacteria is found.

Clostridium difficile is a super-bug that attacks people whose immune systems have been weakened by antibiotics. It causes mild to severe diarrhea and intestinal conditions like inflammation of the colon.

Zurberg says she still has ongoing side effects from her bout with C. difficile and can’t imagine how seniors and those who are already sick deal with the bacteria.

“Anything we can do to help make our patients, our families and out staff safer and not have to go through what I went through is the main reason we’re here,” she said.

Angus has a 97 per cent success rate in detecting C. difficile and check a large room in a manner of a minute or two, which is a lot quicker than the only other way to check … take swabs and test them.

Mindy Thompson, who manages laundry and housekeeping services at UHNBC, says C. difficile is very common and Angus’ visit will be an learning opportunity for staff at the hospital.

“We have cases pretty all the time here at the hospital,” she said. “It is very hard to get rid of, we have to use a different cleaner and it takes twice as long to clean those rooms.”

Since the start of the program in Vancouver Coastal Health in November 2016, there was a 25 per cent decrease in C. difficile cases at Vancouver General Hospital.

A total of 2,423 cases were reported in hospitals province-wide in 2016-17, which is a decrease from the previous year.

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