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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 19:01 GMT
Hospital fabrics harbour bugs

Hospital ward
Hospitals may harbour bugs in many places

Potentially deadly bacteria may be spread around hospitals on common fabrics used for clothes, towels and curtains, scientists have found.

Researchers from Ohio have found that harmful bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" can live on these materials for longer than three months.

It's not surprising that vancomycin-resistant enterococci survive for so long. They are the cockroaches of the microbial world
Robert Weinstein, Rush Medical College, Chicago
A National Audit Office report released last week found that hospital acquired infections kill at least 5,000 people in the UK each year.

Most hospital infections are thought to be spread through sloppy hygiene, such as failure by doctors and nurses to wash their hands or to clean instruments properly.

But New Scientist magazine reports that fabrics may be at least partly to blame for the problem.

The Ohio team, from the Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, studied how bacteria could survive on five common hospital materials:

  • Pure cotton from clothing
  • Cotton terry from towels
  • A cotton-polyester typically used for lab coats
  • Pure polyester used in privacy curtains
  • Polyethylene from splash aprons
The researchers took 22 strains of bacteria and smeared them onto samples of the fabrics.

The strains included common "superbugs" resistant to almost all antibiotics, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci.

They found that the staphylococci could survive for up to seven weeks on polyester, and for up to three months on polyethylene.

Survived longer

Enterococci generally survived even longer than the staphylococcal strains.

The researchers say bacteria could spread when staff and patients handle polyester privacy curtains.

"Staphylococci and enterococci survived for days to months on this fabric, suggesting such drapes could act as reservoirs for these bacteria."

Experts stress, however, that poor hand hygiene and failure to wash instruments properly probably dwarf any transmission via fabrics.

Peter Hoffman, of the Public Health Laboratory Service in London, said that cotton is the most common fabric in British hospitals, and items are regularly heat-disinfected before use.

Where polyethylene is used - in splash aprons, for example - it is disposed of after treating a patient, like gloves.

He said: "It's accepted that the most important routes are dirty hands and instruments."

Robert Weinstein of Rush Medical College in Chicago said the new study was interesting.

He said: "It's not surprising that vancomycin-resistant enterococci survive for so long.

"They are the cockroaches of the microbial world."

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See also:
17 Feb 00 |  Health
NHS bugs 'kill 5,000 a year'
17 Feb 00 |  Health
Hospital infections: case studies
17 Feb 00 |  Health
'Food industry is more hygienic than hospitals'
18 Jan 00 |  Health
Hospital infections cost 1bn a year

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