The word "superbug" evokes an image of a super-sized spider or mosquito, more fitting in a children's comic than a hospital ward. In reality, the bugs are a much smaller scale but equally deadly. The H1N1 influenza A pandemic has grabbed media attention in 2009, pushing the limelight off the once-topical spread of MRSA and Clostridium difficile (C. diff) superbugs, but the threat is still very much alive and well.
The media attention may have died down but it has had a lasting impact on the growing recognition of the need to tackle the issue of antimicrobial resistance. In the UK, NHS trusts across the country are actively installing measures and medical devices in the hope of reducing the spread of infection.
In Scotland, for example, C. diff rates have fallen 42% compared with the same period last year while MRSA rates have dropped 25%, according to new figures released.
Lobby group MRSA Action Aid chair Derek Butler says more needs to be done by the UK government to achieve zero tolerance across every hospital board. "We want to see even more investment put into keeping the bacteria at bay and raising public awareness so that far fewer people will be left with the lifetime legacy caused by preventable and life-threatening infections," Butler says.
Helping every hospital's cause is a wealth of new products being launched on the back of the increasing awareness, from firms looking to cash in on the furore caused by the seemingly rapid penetration of these bacteria across the UK hospital network.
One firm leading this trend is specialist supplier of tools and hardware Centurion Europe. Rather than hoping to make a quick buck, it is releasing a new range of superbug-proof hospital signs at the same price as its standard products.
Centurion Europe has worked with an NHS trust to manufacture a range of signs called Biosigns that can be rolled out in any hospital, with the capacity to kill 99.99% of superbug bacteria.
Centurion Europe business development manager Gary Henton says that the company has a history in producing health and safety signs but it was a particular association with one hospital trust that led it to look towards antibacterial products and be faced with a new set of challenges.
"We began looking at ease of installation, ease of cleaning and making sure the product didn't create any dust traps that could contribute to it not being cleaned properly and promoting bacterial growth rather than preventing it," he says.
Henton is hoping to trial the new signs in one hospital and then put together a compelling case study of why every hospital should deploy them. The design mitigates the spread of superbugs as there are no joints, raised services or gaps where germs are likely to foster and the signs are also coated with an outside layer that actively kills the bacteria.
"The signs are coated with a layer of silver ions," he says. "It is a widely accepted technology as having broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity.
"The silver ions bind to the cell surfaces of the micro organism to penetrate its structure. Silver ions are highly reactive and they incapacitate the energy source of the cell; it dies within 24 hours."
The gradual elimination of the MRSA bacteria as soon as it touches the sign results in almost total elimination, with 99.99% of the organism killed within a day.
Although Centurion has a patent for the silver ion coating being applied to its signs, the technology could be further expanded to coat additional medical devices that are particularly involved in the spread of hospital infections.
For Centurion, it is a business sector that could easily be expanded. "I'm not sure what areas are being looked at [to use silver ions coating] but it is a technology that we are looking to develop into a range of other products that may be related but not necessarily [only to] medical devices," Henton says.
He hopes that by marketing the signs to primary care trusts at the standard price for signage, despite an additional cost incurred to the firm, the Biosign brand will gain recognition and the hospitals can be provided with a superior product.
Reduce the spread
The UK has also just released news of a high-tech chair designed to eliminate the spread of hospital superbugs. It will go into mass production in late 2009. The chair has been designed as a partnership between the Department of Health and the Design Council as part of the Design Bugs Out project.
The chair has been designed to minimise the number of creases where infectious superbugs may spread. In addition, a new porter chair has been designed and tested out across NHS hospitals over the past few months.
Designers chose an easy-to-clean material to prevent further spread. It also comes apart for deep cleaning and patient comfort has been enhanced from traditional designs.
The technologies – and the designs – seem to be out there for hospitals across the UK, and the world, to actively stop the spread of hospital-acquired infectious diseases. Budget will always be an issue of just how widespread their implementation can be but with companies such as Centurion shouldering the additional costs themselves, it seems the media furore that once surrounded the issue may have resulted in practical, positive measures being put in place.