As the bacteria known as C. diff continues to raise concerns throughout the nation, a group of Ohio hospitals is having some success driving down the infections that patients pick up after they are admitted.

Clostridium difficile is one of the most common causes of bacterial colon infections and often is brought on by use of antibiotics, which can disrupt the normal bacteria in the bowel. Many infected people have no symptoms, but some become severely ill.

A recent report shared at an infection-control conference showed that C. diff infections are now more common than MRSA infections at 28 hospitals in the Southeast. MRSA is a deadly, drug-resistant staph infection.

There were more than 15,000 C. diff cases in Ohio in 2006, the only year in which the state Health Department required reporting by hospitals and nursing homes. In 2007, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has preliminary data, 6,432 Americans died of complications from such an infection, up from 793 the year before.

Public-health and infection-control leaders in Ohio have had their eyes on C. diff for several years after reports here and nationally said both the incidence and severity of the illness were on the rise.

One-third of the state's hospitals have lowered incidence of C. diff since pledging to better monitor basic infection-control in at least one patient unit, said Dr. Julie E. Mangino, an infectious-disease expert and medical director of clinical epidemiology at Ohio State University Medical Center.

Ohio State is one of five centers in the United States working with the CDC to prevent infections, antibiotic resistance and other problems. Ohio State and the Ohio Hospital Association are leading the statewide C. diff project.

Regular audits in the 60 participating hospitals look at hand-washing, proper isolation of infected patients and cleaning of surfaces, including bed rails.

Observers record whether hand-washing occurs and for how long and that other practices are documented and reviewed monthly, said Carol Jacobson, director of emergency management for the hospital association.

From July through December, incidence of C. diff infection acquired during a stay in the participating hospitals dropped from a rate of 7.7 infections per 10,000 days patients spent in the hospital to 6.7 cases per 10,000 days patients spent in the hospital.

Hospitals commonly count based on patient days; 50 patients who each spend two days in the hospital equates to 100 patient days.

The Ohio Hospital Association estimates that the kind of reductions seen so far could amount to at least 810 fewer infections and 34 lives saved each year if hospitals were involved statewide.

David Engler, vice president of the group's Quality Institute, said Ohio's 60-hospital collaborative is the largest of its kind and could serve as a template for reducing infections throughout the state and elsewhere.

The association already is working with people in Massachusetts who are interested in a similar effort, he said.

To be in the collaborative, hospital officials must focus infection-reduction efforts on at least one unit of the hospital - often an intensive-care unit. Some smaller hospitals have expanded the project throughout their institutions, Mangino said.

The project will continue through the end of June.

"We're really hoping to see the drop be sustained," she said.