Common metal may keep hospitals safer

Three different people and they share one common story about hospital nightmares. Dan Viratos, Jenna Edmondson and Belinda Malone all survived a hospital infection.

"The infection was right there," said Viratos.

"I didn't understand how I could get an infection from the hospital because you go there to get healed," said Edmondson.

"It's very hard. It's still very hard," said Malone.

Two million Americans a year will get a hospital infection. And 100,000 of them will die.

"Hospital-acquired infection is the dirty little secret of healthcare," said microbiologist Dr. Michael Schmidt.

Dr. Schmidt hopes to reduce infections with something that's probably in your pocket.

"Copper is microbiocidal. It's a metal and when the bacteria come in contact with it, they die," said Dr. Schmidt.

No one's sure why copper kills, but studies show it destroys nearly all of infection-causing microbes.

"They're not coming back to life. They are dead and as they say, 'dead microbes tell no tales,'" said Dr. Schmidt.

In Schmidt's study, copper replaces plastic components in hospital rooms like bed rails, nurse call buttons, tray tables and keyboards. Dr. Cassandra Salgado, an infectious disease specialist, says copper will add another much-needed layer of protection.

"The thought of being able to reduce our infection rates by using something as simple as this is really, really exciting," said Dr. Salgado.

Schmidt says not only will it save lives, but money too. Currently, hospital infections cost the health care system $30 billion a year.

"We're looking for a 50-percent reduction and that's $15 billion," said Dr. Schmidt.

Proof that a little change can go a long way.

One in 20 people who step inside a hospital for care develop a hospital-acquired infection.

It's a common problem and the consequences can be deadly. But researchers think copper could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Web Extra Information:
HOSPITAL-ACQUIRED INFECTIONS: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two million people in the United States develop a hospital-acquired infection each year. Of those, about 100,000 die. Hospital infections are the fourth-leading killer of people in the United States and cost the health care system about $30 billion a year. "You have a one in 20 chance of developing a hospital-acquired infection once you cross the threshold and enter a hospital for care," Michael Schmidt, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, told Ivanhoe. "More people die of a hospital-acquired infection each year in the United States than die from HIV and breast cancer combined. [They're] the dirty little secret of healthcare."

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 athogens 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.


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