Copper fights hospital infections

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM? "The simple answer as to why people get infections in hospitals is that bacteria are everywhere and as best as we can, we try to prevent microorganisms from coming in contact with patients, yet they still do," Dr. Schmidt explained. Many, if not most, hospitals have adopted strict sanitary procedures to keep the hospital clean. Doctors and healthcare providers are instructed to wash their hands before and after coming in contact with patients and hospitals often use aggressive cleaning products to reduce the level of microbes in the environment; however, "People are people and as best we try to educate our health care workers, accidents happen," Dr. Schmidt remarked. Also, people in the hospital are typically there because they're sick. Their immune systems are not working up to par, making a hospital infection much easier to acquire.

REDUCING INFECTIONS WITH COPPER: Dr. Schmidt and his colleagues at MUSC are testing an ancient idea to reduce the transmission of hospital infections: copper. Copper is a metal and a trace nutrient that is essential for animals and humans. Copper is microbiocidal and when bacteria come in contact with it, they die. Ancient civilizations knew this and used it to their advantage. Egyptians stored water in copper vessels so the water would not go bad and was safe to drink. Ancient warriors knew if they sharpened their bronze or copper sword and put the shavings into a wound, it would not get infected. "We are just now rediscovering this activity that copper is antimicrobial and by placing it in close proximity to our patients, we may then be able to short circuit the transfer of the microorganism from the environment to the patient," Dr. Schmidt said. MUSC researchers are now installing copper in vital places in the hospital to reduce the transmission of disease. They are installing copper bed tray tables, visitor chairs, computer keyboards and mice, bed rails and nurse call buttons -- areas all known to be contaminated with microbes. Dr. Schmidt hopes, "By putting metallic copper onto these surfaces, we are going to reduce the concentration of indigenous microbes in the room to a level that will drop the incidence of hospital-acquired infections."

One recent study showed copper can indeed quickly and efficiently eliminate several different pathogens which are the source of many hospital-acquired infections. Previous studies done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show solid copper alloys are more than 99.9 percent effective on five pathogens commonly found in health care facilities. The current study, which will test how installing copper surfaces translates to hospital infection rates, will include MUSC, the VA Medical Center in Charleston and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.


Michael Schmidt, PhD

Medical University of South Carolina

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