Published: Tue, August 07, 2018
Medical | By Johnnie Horton

This hospital superbug can now withstand hand sanitizer

This hospital superbug can now withstand hand sanitizer

For the study, the researchers analyzed 139 samples of E. faecium bacteria collected between 1997 and 2015 from two hospitals in Melbourne. But to the surprise of medical researchers, disinfectants did not seem to do much to curtail the spread of bacterial infections caused by so-called superbug vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE); in fact, VRE infections in Australian hospitals started going up. In the first part of the examination, the germs were treated with a mixture of water and 23 percent of isopropanol, a type of alcohol commonly used in hand sanitizers.

The isolates gathered after 2009 were on average more tolerant to the alcohol compared to bacteria taken from before 2004.

"Alcohol-based hand rubs are worldwide pillars of hospital infection control and remain highly effective in reducing transmission of other hospital superbugs, particularly MRSA", he said.

The researchers, co-led by Tim Stinear, Ph.D., a microbiologist at Australia's Doherty Institute, found specific genetic changes over 20 years in vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, or VRE, and described the bugs as a "new wave of superbugs".

Further research helped to find mutations in genes involved in carbohydrate uptake and metabolism. Once the cages were cleaned, the mice were placed in them for one hour.

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The study found that over a almost 20-year period, strains of E. faecium became better able to withstand alco-hol-based hand sanitizer, meaning the sanitizer didn't kill the bacteria as well as it had before.

"It shows that it is not just a laboratory phenomenon that we are measuring here; we are showing this characteristic [of the bacteria] transfers into being able to escape a standard infection control procedure", Timothy Stinear, one of the authors of the new paper, tells Nicola Davis of the Guardian. It is possible that the bacteria are simply becoming resistant to hand sanitizers, but something more complex could be at work.

Being "tolerant" means the bacteria can survive exposure to alcohol longer. This resulted in increased resistance to alcohol.

"So we are using a lot and the environment is changing", he said.

Paul Johnson, a professor of infectious diseases at Austin Health in Australia who also co-led the study, said the findings should not prompt any dramatic change in the use of alcohol-based disinfectants.

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