Our research into the natural antimicrobial properties of copper is helping to tackle one of today’s major healthcare challenges – hospital superbugs.
Around seven million people each year contract a healthcare-associated infection (HAI), with 37,000 deaths annually in Europe alone. As well as the immeasurable personal toll, HAIs cost over $80bn globally every year. In addition, the worldwide spread of antimicrobial resistance threatens the continued effectiveness of many medicines used today to treat infectious diseases.
Research led by Professor Bill Keevil, Head of the Microbiology Group and Director of the Environmental Healthcare Unit at the University’s Centre for Biological Sciences, is helping the fight against HAIs.
Bill explains: "Bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can survive on ordinary surfaces like door handles, taps and grab rails for days, even months, and be transferred on hands, spreading bacteria to other surfaces or to patients.”
His research has established that the natural antimicrobial properties of copper and copper alloys dramatically reduce the presence of MRSA bacteria compared with stainless steel, the most commonly used surface metal in health institutions.
Once settled on stainless steel, MRSA bacteria remain fully active for days. On brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) they die in less than five hours and on pure copper the superbugs are eliminated in 30 minutes when simulating wet droplets from a cough or sneeze, but in less than10 minutes when simulating dry hand contact.
“If touch surfaces in hospitals were comprised of an alloy of copper, the spread of infection would be greatly reduced and many lives could be saved,” says Bill.
The research is already starting to have an impact: some hospitals around the world are already starting to incorporate copper alloys into their wards. With new superbugs emerging all the time, Southampton researchers are at the forefront of finding new ways to tackle them.