New York’s most vulnerable patients are at a growing risk to contract a potentially fatal gut infection called Clostridium Difficile, according to state statistics.

The most recent data published by the New York State Department of Health shows that hospital-acquired infections of the bacteria are on the rise statewide. The bacteria – commonly referred to as C. diff – has bcome an increasing problem in the state’s health care systems since a new strain emerged in 2002. In New York, infections rose by more than three percent between 2010 and 2011. C. diff, which can cause diarrhea, fever and gut pain, has lead to more than 14,000 deaths nationwide.

Cliff McDonald, an expert on C. diff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that hospitals with high rates should examine infection control practices to see what it is being done wrong and how to improve.

“What hospitals should do with this data is look at where they lie and ask themselves the question ‘What explains that?’” McDonald said.

McDonald cautions that the statewide three percent increase might be a result of hospitals using more sensitive tests. He added that different demographic factors, such as age or the number of days a patient has spent in an inpatient facility, might account for the change. The majority of patients with C. Diff tend to be over the age of 65.

In New York City the DOH found that public hospitals – ones funded and run by the government – hosted fewer infections than nonprofit hospitals with private donors. The rate of infection at New York City nonprofit hospitals is almost three times that of public hospitals.

Health officials have been paying more attention to C. diff infections since deaths related to the infection increased by 400 percent from 2000 to 2007 amid a series of outbreaks in North America.

“The reason that in the past few years that here has been this increase is the actual strain has changed,” said Nancy Corbett, regional risk manager for Kaiser Permanente, a nationwide managed-care corporation. “It is much more virulent and harder to treat.”

Problems with C. diff occur when bacteria the body needs to fight infection are stripped away by heavy doses of antibiotics. So-called “mega” antibiotics can fight many diseases, but also can deplete the immune system, leaving already sick patients more vulnerable.

C. diff can be treated using antibiotics, but it can sometimes take up to three months to cure a patient who has been infected.

Scientists have recently been successful in using a procedure called fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT or fecal transplantation) to treat recurrent C. diff. It involves taking a sample of healthy stool and reintroducing it into infected intestines.