Copper-bottomed guarantee to beat hospital infections

The efficacy of copper and copper alloys has been rediscovered as a means of killing bacteria in hospitals. Tom Shelley reports

Making artefacts out of copper and copper alloys for use in hospitals reduces the number of live micro-organisms on their surfaces by 90 to 95%.
Their effectiveness has been known for thousands of years, but now can be coupled with new surface treatment technologies that also retain an attractive appearance.
Professor Tom Elliott, leader of a copper clinical trial at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, reveals that almost 10% of patients come into hospital in the UK with an infection.
“Of the nine who don’t, we manage to give 10% of them an infection,” he reveals – which translates into 300,000 patients acquiring infections in hospital each year.
Speaking at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Copper Development Association, he went on to give some history of copper as an anti microbial, starting with the Smith Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text written between 2600 and 2200 BC, which records the use of copper to sterilise chest wounds and drinking water. “Dare I say it, it has taken a long time for the penny to drop,” Elliott said.
Laboratory studies by Professor Bill Keevil at Southampton University had already shown that microorganisms in contact with copper were generally killed in minutes or hours. A full-scale trial was carried out on a surgical ward at Selly Oak, comparing the number of surviving bugs on numerous surfaces – such as toilet seats, door handles and cubicle bolts. The 10-week trial involved having half the items in the ward made of copper and copper alloys, and the other half of conventional materials. The copper-based artefacts were exchanged with the conventional products halfway through the trial to eliminate bias. All items were subjected to what Elliott described as “enhanced cleaning” every few hours.

“I thought we would be lucky to reduce microorganisms by 50%, but we found 90 to 95%. The results are fantastic,” he said.
The next stage is to be a 12-month trial, starting in January 2009, to monitor infection rates, in case patients are predominantly acquiring infections by some other route not yet clearly identified.
Intriguingly, doctor’s pens are considered to be major reservoirs of infection. But much effort has gone into developing a surface treatment that would maintain their attractive appearance, as well as their anti-microbial activity. This involves a kind of patination process to produce a thin, coherent layer of oxidised material that prevents further corrosion but still kills bugs.


* Making touch surfaces in hospitals from copper and copper alloys reduces the number of surviving microbes on them by up to 95%

* Modern surface treatments allow the preservation of an attractive surface finish while maintaining anti microbial properties

Tom Shelley

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