Patient privacy curtains often contaminated with superbugs, study finds

Henrietta Strickland
April 14, 2019

As patients are often encouraged to walk around the hospital the risk of picking up and spreading MDROs increases.

For decades, hospitals have worked to get doctors, nurses and others to wash their hands and prevent the spread of germs. They found the two matched in almost all cases - suggesting that transfer to and from the patient was happening. Another solution is to redesign privacy curtains to have removable handles, added Mody. Curtain contamination was often intermittent among 18 patients with 6 months of follow up.

"Hand hygiene narrative has largely focused on physicians, nurses and other frontline staff, and all the policies and performance measurements have centered on them, and rightfully so", says Lona Mody, M.D., M.Sc., the University of MI geriatrician, epidemiologist and patient safety researcher who led the research team. It causes risky bloodstream infections.

In addition to MRSA, short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the study looked for superbugs called VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococcus) and a group called RGNB, for resistant Gram-negative bacteria.

Fourteen percent of 399 hospital patients tested in the study had "superbug" antibiotic-resistant bacteria on their hands or nostrils very early in their hospital stay, the research finds.

"As privacy curtains are used all over the world, it is a global issue", said Dr. Lona Mody, one of the coauthors of the new report, which will be presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Amsterdam.

They were particularly interested in any links between bacteria found on the patients and the curtains around their own bed.

The researchers, led by Kristen Gibson at the University of Michigan's Department of Internal Medicine, said: 'We were surprised to see that multi-drug-resistant organisms, especially VRE, shed by patients routinely contaminate their privacy curtains.

"MDRO curtain contamination is common in SNFs and often reflects patient colonisation".

Mody notes that the study suggests that numerous MDROs seen on patients are also seen in their rooms early in their stay, suggesting that transmission to room surfaces is rapid.

An SNF provides round the clock services from nurses, physical and occupational therapists, speech pathologists and audiologists to improve patients' health and the ability to carry out daily activities.

They hope the results will better inform curtain hygiene protocols.

Skin samples were collected from several sites on each participants' body, as well as from high-touch surfaces in their room.

The team sampled the curtains when the patient was first admitted, and then sampled the curtains again after two weeks, after one month, and then every month up to six months later, with a total of 1,521 samples collected at the end of the study.

However, researchers cautioned that the presence of MDROs didn't necessarily mean that patients would fall sick.

Prof Mody said: "Patient privacy curtains are high-touch surfaces that are cleaned infrequently and could contribute to pathogen transmission". "Further studies are needed to determine conclusively whether contaminated privacy curtains are a source of multidrug-resistant organism transmission to patients".

In November a report warned superbug infections could kill 2.4 million people in Europe, the USA and Australia by 2050.

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