- At least 5,000 patients die of complications due to infections they acquired in hospitals each year.
- 9% of patients in UK hospitals pick up an infection that they did not have before they arrived.
- A hand contaminated with Influenza A virus will contaminate the next 7 surfaces it touches.
These terrifying facts summarise the prolific danger that hospital-acquired infections pose to the NHS and to their patients. Every year, the NHS spends roughly one billion pounds in an attempt to clean hospitals, in order to defeat these infections and lower the mortality rate they cause. Many of these hospital-spread infections have become household names, including MRSA, E. coli, klebsiella pneumoniae which causes pneumonia and clostridium difficile which causes tetanus. In more recent years, bird flu and swine flu have also threatened to infect British hospitals.
In recent years, evidence has been found that offers some hope; hospitals can stop the spread of these germs and infections through the use of copper.
Roughly 80% of all infectious diseases are spread by touch; the contact of one surface with another. In hospitals, certain surfaces are touched hundreds of times a day; push plates, door handles, bed rails, light switches, table tops and counters, dressing trolleys and soap, alcohol and paper towel dispensers are all heavily responsible for the spread of infection. Research has proven that if these surfaces are replaced by copper, or high-copper alloys like brass, the spread of infectious germs in hospitals can be dramatically reduced.
Why it works
Copper prevents the spread of infectious germs because it is a natural antimicrobial; something which can kill or deactivate microbes. The microbes that make up the harmful bacteria present on many hospital surfaces can stay alive and active for hours, days or even months if untreated. If this surface is then touched, the active bacteria can spread, creating the potential for infection. The antimicrobial quality of copper means that when the same dangerous bacteria lands on its surface, it cannot survive; a copper surfaces kills more than 99.9% of the bacteria that lands on it within two hours, and kills over 99% after repeated contamination. Copper is proven to deactivate microbes which cause the most dangerous hospital-acquired infections, listed earlier, which once done will reduce their spread throughout the hospital.
Tried and tested
Using copper to fight against the spread of infection was first tested in laboratory research at the University of Southampton, where they tested MRSA’s survival rate on different surfaces. The results showed that after just 90 minutes on copper, the MRSA bacteria was deactivated; a stark contrast to stainless steel, used in many hospitals, where the bacteria was unaffected. A clinical trial then followed in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, which discovered that replacing hospital surfaces that get touched every day with copper could reduce hospital-acquired infections by 90-100%.
The tried and tested concept has now started to work its way into hospitals. St Francis Private Hospital in County Westmeath in Ireland pioneered the idea, and was the first hospital in the world to change frequently-touched surfaces to copper-based substances. The concept soon spread and in January 2011, French care home Centre Inter Générationnel Multi Accueil became the first in France to use copper in this way.
There is every argument for hospitals and care homes to replace regularly-touched surfaces with copper and high-copper alloys, as a preventative measure against the spread of disease. Once installed, the copper fixtures will quickly and endlessly kill dangerous bacteria, which will without a doubt reduce the spread of infection. The cost of replacing he surfaces with copper may seem off-putting, but when the battle against hospital-spread infections is costing the NHS a billion pounds each year, this one-off payment is something worth investing in.