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‘Wipe out C. difficile’ project wins Awesome Kingston November grant

Percy, a 6 month old springer spaniel who is undergoing training to locate C. difficile in hospitals and long term care facilities. Photo by Garrett Elliott.

Every month, Awesome Kingston gives away a $1000 micro-grant to a local project pitched by its creator. These days the pitch party is happening virtually, but the outcome is still the same. No-strings-attached money is given to the winner to help them develop the projects that Awesome Kingston thinks will keep Kingston awesome.

November’s winner was Meghan Engbretson, with her “Wipe out C. difficile” project to train dogs to recognize and find the scent of C. difficile bacteria in institutional settings.

This initiative is especially important in health care and long term care settings. According to Engbretson’s pitch, the C. difficile bacteria can survive months on surfaces if not cleaned adequately. With sufficient training, dogs will be able to locate areas in local environments that need a more thorough cleaning to remove the dangerous bacteria.

Currently Engbretson is working with Percy, a six month old English springer spaniel.

“Percy attends an hour long training class on a weekly basis where he is trained to recognize a practice scent (wintergreen essential oil) in increasingly difficult locations,” Engbretson shared. “We practice routinely at home by hiding the same scent in Tupperware containers.”

The costs for Percy’s training have, so far, been covered solely by Engbretson herself. She says the grant will go directly toward continuing Percy’s training.

“The continuing goal is first proof of concept. We need to ensure that our training practices result in a successful dog who can pick up the scent we want him to in a hospital environment. After that, it would be great to be able to assist in training other dogs in some capacity,” she said.

“The difficult part is teaching the dog to identify any scent consistently and alert their handler (me). The easier part comes when you need to swap that practice scent for another. Dogs can really be trained to sniff out anything with an odour. When Percy is proficient at finding the training scent in difficult places, he will start training on our ‘mock C.diff scent’.”

“This part is tricky because normally when training a drugs dog etc. you would use actual drugs or whatever they’re searching for,” Engbretson continued. “Clostridium difficile bacteria is technically a biohazard and therefore can’t be removed from the lab. A microbiologist at the University of Guelph has kindly offered to create an inactive bacteria training scent for me that’s safe to use, when the time comes.”

How does the handler know when the dog has located the scent of C. difficile? Engbretson explains:

“The protocol isn’t finalized at the moment but generally, from the Vancouver team, when the dog “alerts” to the scent on a true search, and has proved to find the training scent reliably in the past, you would assume the dog is correct because cleaning or removing the item is quicker/easier than doing an environmental swab and verifying. That being said there are different ways of doing quick swabs of where the dog “alerts” to if you want to validate along the way.”

The ‘Vancouver team’ Engbretson is referring to is the canine handling team at Vancouver Coastal Health who started a similar program 5 years ago, and currently own the only 3 trained C. difficile detection dogs in Canada.

When asked if this project is related to our local hospitals, Engbreston said, “I am an Infection Control Practitioner at KHSC meaning that I routinely do surveillance for C. diff infections in the hospital environment. The model used at Vancouver Coastal Health is supported by their hospital infection control and microbiology department. Percy will eventually train in the hospital environment at Kingston General Hospital.”

Heather Candon, Director of Infection Prevention and Control at KHSC shared her views on this project. “We’re always looking for ways to provide better patient care, including new ways to sniff out superbugs like C. diff.  It’s wonderful that one of own infection control practitioners is leading the way in exploring how we might incorporate canine scent detection into our infection prevention and control practices.”

View Meghan’s pitch on the Awesome Foundation website here: https://www.awesomefoundation.org/en/projects/155104-wipe-out-c-difficile

How does Awesome Kingston work?

The trustee group is made up of community minded individuals who want to help make Kingston a more awesome city by volunteering time and money to Awesome Kingston. Each of the trustees provides $100 to make up the $1000 microgrant every month. The venues for the pitch parties are provided to the organization at no charge allowing them to put all the monies collected from the trustees into the grant. It is as simple as local people helping to get local ideas off the ground to keep Kingston Awesome!

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