Ultraviolet light and copper coatings may help hospitals control infections

image of microbes

Image: College of Medicine

Antimicrobial resistance is a growing problem, as some infections that used to be easily cured are now immune to even our most powerful antibiotics. These resistant microorganisms are called superbugs, and their infections are difficult to treat and may be transmitted to other people, especially those already ill and therefore vulnerable. One of the biggest arenas of this fight is hospitals and other health care facilities, but new technology is joining the battle.

One approach has been the use of ultraviolet light, which destroys bacteria, but also has limitations. Copper-coated surfaces are self-sanitizing and might help fill the gap.

Chetan Jinadatha, clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and chief of infectious diseases at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System in Temple, Texas, and his colleagues recently completed a pilot study demonstrating how that might work. Their results are published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

Ultraviolet light has its limitations, Jinadatha said. “You can’t use it when the patient is in the room and we’re providing care, and you can’t get into tiny crevices where light doesn’t easily reach,” he said. “We need to keep the bioburden—or the number of potentially infectious organisms—as low as possible, so we started looking for a technology to do so.”

Jinadatha and his team placed a bedside tray table that had been coated with a laminate material impregnated with copper oxide in 11 occupied rooms in the Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple. They also studied 11 other rooms that used a standard laminate tray table, which acted as a control. Results indicated that the surfaces with the copper compound accumulated a lower bioburden than the control surfaces after the first full day of their use.

“It’s a small pilot study, but it is promising,” Jinadatha said.

What differentiates this product from other substances with similar properties is that it is already scalable, it can be put over existing hospital infrastructure like bed rails, the material is easy to mold and—because the copper is embedded throughout—the antimicrobial properties are not likely to wear off and be rendered ineffective.

The research team’s next step is to put the copper-embedded plastic into more patient rooms and cover five different surfaces, including bed rails, with it. They will also be studying its effectiveness over a longer period of time and on a wider variety of pathogens.

The team will also look to establish the economic impact. Some infections are non-reimbursable, and there are fines and other penalties if hospitals have among the worst infection rates. “We will be examining whether this material can reduce hospital-acquired infections and, essentially, pay for itself,” Jinadatha said. “As long as it breaks even, we anticipate that there will be lots of interest.”

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