Antibacterial Wipes May Be Spreading Super Bugs in Hospitals

Today, disinfecting wipes and alcohol-based hand gels are widely used in hospitals, schools, and other public settings to kill the germs that cause infectious disease.  And, it is estimated that Americans spend a staggering $1 billion annually on these and other antibacterial products; however, with the rise in deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs, their direct impact on the spread of infectious disease is not clearly understood.

In a study that focused only on the wipes, researchers found that instead of preventing hospital-acquired infections like the mutated form of staph infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the wipes could actually be spreading bacteria when used improperly by hospital staffers.

About 100,000 cases of invasive <"">MRSA occur annually in the United States according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and, shockingly, most of these infections occur in hospitals and other health-care settings.  According to research earlier this year conducted at McGill University Health Center, Montreal, Canada, over 20 percent of its MRSA patients were dead within one year.  MRSA, is now considered even more dangerous than previously believed and, once seen chiefly in hospitals, MRSA is now striking healthy people outside of hospitals and nursing homes and has emerged as a community-based—as opposed to hospital-derived—disease.

Disinfectant wipes are among the most common products used in such healthcare facilities in the prevention of the spread of MRSA and other infectious pathogens.  In a study presented today in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, researchers from Cardiff University’s Welsh School of Pharmacy reported that when used improperly, antibacterial wipes may spread bacteria rather than remove or kill them.  Researchers Jean-Yves Maillard, PhD, Gareth Williams, PhD, and colleagues observed hospital staffers using the wipes to disinfect hospital rooms.  “We saw that there was a tendency to use one wipe on consecutive surfaces, such as bed rails, computer monitors, and keyboards,” Williams said.

The researchers used the wipes in this way in laboratory tests designed to measure their ability to remove and kill the bacteria that cause staph infections, including MRSA.  While most wipes tested did remove large numbers of bacteria from contaminated surfaces, they also transferred live bacteria to uncontaminated surfaces when used in more than one place.  Some wipes that claimed to kill bacteria were found to transfer live bacteria from one surface to another, the researchers report.  “The message is that they have to be used properly,” Williams says.  That means using one swipe per wipe on a single surface, Maillard adds.

According to 2005 CDC figures, nearly 19,000 people died in the U.S. from MRSA infections; 94,000 were seriously sickened.  Of 19,000 patients studied in 2005, 2,000 were healthy people contracting community-based MRSA.  In Canada, about 220,000 people are sickened; an additional 8,000 to 12,000 die annually.  Also, well-known but not widely publicized, patients surviving MRSA often require amputations to cure infections.  “Our study suggests that MRSA can be a potentially serious infection in the community leading to increased mortality,” the investigators concluded, adding that the “judicious use of antibiotics is essential to prevent these quite deadly community-acquired MRSA infections,” given the emergence of antibiotic resistance when antibiotics are used indiscriminately.

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