Despite Modest Past, Copper May Be Invaluable in Preventing Hospital Infections

by U.S. Medicine

August 1, 2011

At one point, copper was so inexpensive, it was used to make pennies. Now, a form of the metal may save not only money, but also lives, when used on commonly-touched items in hospital patient rooms.

A multi-site clinical trial funded by DoD demonstrated that the use of antimicrobial copper surfaces in intensive-care units (ICUs) resulted in a 97% reduction of bacteria that causes hospital acquired infections (HAIs). In addition, the study found a 40% reduction in the risk of acquiring an infection.

These early study results were presented at the World Health Organization’s 1st International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control (ICPIC) in Geneva in July.

The study was designed to determine the efficacy of antimicrobial copper in reducing the level of pathogens in hospital ICU patient rooms, and to determine whether a reduction would translate into a lower risk of infection. The study was done in ICU patient rooms at three participating hospitals — Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York as well as the Medical University of South Carolina and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, both in Charleston.

Researchers replaced items such as bed-rails, over-bed tray tables, nurse call buttons and IV poles with antimicrobial copper versions. Patients were then randomly placed into rooms, with or without the copper replacements.

“We were able to substantially reduce the incidence of hospital-acquired infections in patients that were treated in rooms with a limited number of copper objects,” said one of the researchers, Dr. Michael Schmidt, professor and vice chairman of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Despite Modest Past, Copper May Be Invaluable in Preventing Hospital Infections Cont.

The researchers were surprised to find that so little copper could have “such a great affect,” Schmidt told U.S. Medicine.

Plastic and stainless steel, which have no inherent antimicrobial activity, are typically found in items and surfaces in a health-care setting, Schmidt said. However, replacing surfaces with antimicrobial copper, along with improved hand hygiene and thorough cleaning, could make a real difference, he said.

“This is really the first instance that, in concert with hand hygiene and normal cleaning of rooms, if you add this third component, you may be able to really build a solid case for reducing health-care costs and improving patient outcomes with one very economical solution,” he said.

DoD is very much concerned with HAIs and the health and welfare of troops, according to Schmidt who pointed out, “For them, it is not only about protecting the troops to the best of our ability, but at the same time it is about force readiness.”

The researchers were in the process of submitting the results for publication, according to Schmidt.

Previous research on copper’s ability to kill bacteria was affirmed by the EPA in 2008 when it allowed five copper-alloy products to be registered and to claim that copper kills 99.9 percent of bacteria within two hours.

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