Copper kills hospital superbugs, could save thousands of lives

Centuries ago alchemists proclaimed copper a life-saving metal. Some Native American shamans and Amazonian jungle healers use potions and trinkets of copper to treat hundreds of maladies. Millions of people wear copper bracelets to ease the pain of arthritis. And late-night hucksters and Internet spammers claim copper can cure everything from ruptured Achilles tendons to varicose veins.

MRSA bacteria

MRSA bacteria

Finally, researchers are starting to take a serious look at this ubiquitous metal antimicrobial properties.

Dr. Michael Schmidt, vice chairman of the Microbiology and Immunology Department at the Medical University of South Carolina, is studying copper’s effectiveness in killing lethal bacteria at two U.S. hospitals and one in Chile.

The research is collecting and counting bacteria found on many common hospital work surfaces and points of patient contact –  toilet seats, faucets, hand rails and the like.  Analysis will be done again on identical surfaces that have been replaced with copper or a blend of copper and other metals.

Infectious disease specialists at the Centers for Disease Control say Schmidt’s work and that of a handful of other researchers have already shown that copper is a natural microbicide and can kill the most serious of hospital-spawned bacteria almost on contact.

They call the research vital because more than 120,000 people a year die from infections acquired while hospitalized, and that’s just in the U.S.

In several speeches, Schmidt has said that patients have a one in 20 chance of developing a serious infection once they enter a hospital for treatment.

Infection-control teams facing the probability of mammoth contamination problems from the H1N1 flu undoubtedly wish the copper research was further along.

A separate study in a hospital in the UK has shown that copper door plates, faucets, light switches and other fixtures killed highly infectious bacteria more rapidly than the traditional stainless steel, plastics and other materials commonly used in medical facilities.

Peter Lambert, a professor of microbiology at Aston University in Birmingham, England, conducted the research and reported this year that the copper metal all but eliminated two of the fiercest hospital-acquired super bugs – the common name for bacteria which has become resistant to traditional treatment.

The World Health Organization says that the super bugs – C. difficile, the major cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – claim “far more than 500,000 lives a year.”

Both Lambert and Schmidt say the copper suffocates germs, preventing them from breathing, without the need of additional antibacterial sprays or other chemicals.

Lambert’s tests, which were paid for by the copper industry, have shown that the metal kills off the deadly MRSA and C difficile and other dangerous germs, including the flu virus and the E coli food poisoning bug, the professor has reported.

Lambert described a 10-week trial on a medical ward where several fixtures were replaced with copper versions. He says every 12 hours the fixtures were swabbed for bacteria and the results compared with the traditional non-copper fixtures found in a hospital room.

The professor reported that about 95 percent fewer bacteria were found on the copper surface.

“The copper is quietly working away in the background,” he reported.

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