Over the past few years, the medical community has been increasingly concerned over the superbug MRSA (also known as or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), and for good reason. MRSA is the leading cause of healthcare-associated infections in the United States and is responsible for more than 80,400 severe infections and nearly 11,300 deaths every year, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). But there is good news. This potentially-deadly superbug has met its match: Copper!
It is well known that frequently touched surfaces in hospitals especially but in other environments as well, serve as reservoirs for the spread of pathogenic microbes. Touchable surfaces in hospitals or your home such as doorknobs, railings, faucet handles, etc., are places where viruses, bacteria, and fungi colonize and persist for a very long time.
Some pathogens can live on these surfaces for up to 30 days. In a hospital, likely holdouts for these pathogens are the HVAC systems, push plates, tray tables, bed rails, IV poles, etc. Studies using copper instead of stainless steel on touchable surfaces are proving coppers antimicrobial properties can kill potentially deadly microbes usually within two hours or less. Copper on touch surfaces in intensive care unit (ICU) hospital rooms was reported by Science Daily to have reduced the number of healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs) in patients by more than half. Superbugs like MRSA are multi-drug resistant and actually pass their genes along to other bacteria making them resistant to antibiotics. This has been called ‘horizontal gene transfer’ and it’s the main process that causes superbugs.
What is exciting in the field of Microbiology and Infection control is that MRSA deposits cannot build upon copper surfaces and therefore die before this horizontal transfer can happen. What makes copper unique is that it doesn’t require a change in human behavior.
The weakest link in any hospital or home is the human link. We humans don’t always wash our hands and if we do we may wash the wrong way or not long enough to kill bacteria. In 2012, research published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology reported that copper surfaces in Intensive Care Units reduced bacteria by 83% on average, and the effect didn’t require any behavioral changes. The staff continued working as they normally did. Another amazing finding is that copper surfaces have an “antimicrobial halo” effect on surrounding non-copper surfaces and that the halo extends up to 50 centimeters from the copper and reduces microbes 70% on those non-copper surfaces. These findings are incredible news that is important not only in the hospital setting but in our homes as well.
Although the superbug MRSA is most often found in hospitals and healthcare settings, in recent years cases of MRSA have been reported in high schools, colleges, and professional sports locker rooms all across the country. Until recently the only known way to reduce the incidence of a superbug like MRSA was careful handwashing, the introduction of antibacterial sprays or lotions, ultraviolet light, along with vigilant cleaning of all touchable surfaces, and in hospitals careful patient screening to isolate patients already infected. But none of these methods have stopped the spread of infections and all the while microbes have grown in strength and mutated into more virulent forms. But the game changer in the world of infectious pathogens is proving to be the use of copper on surfaces where these nasty bugs live.