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Fighting MRSA: New method of hospital disinfection uses UV rays

The staph bacterium is resistant to most common antibiotics and has been responsible for more than nearly 19,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The staph bacterium is resistant to most common antibiotics and has been responsible for more than nearly 19,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

According to the CDC, two million Americans become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 of them die. One of the most common antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a variant of staph known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The CDC classifies MRSA as a "serious" threat. Although MRSA has become resistant to many of the antibiotics previously used to treat staph infections -- such as clindamycin and tetracycline -- scientists working for the Veterans Health Administration (VA) have identified a powerful new weapon.

MRSA can be either hospital-acquired (HA) or community-acquired (CA). Preventing CA-MRSA can be as simple as keeping cuts covered, washing hands frequently and thoroughly, and appropriately sanitizing towels and bedding. Protecting patients from HA-MRSA, on the other hand, depends on a concerted effort by patients, visitors, health care workers, and hospital staff, including maintenance workers.

One problem in hospitals is that hospital rooms are inappropriately disinfected, leaving MRSA from one patient to infect future patients -- and doctors -- who will use the room. Inappropriate dilution of cleaning fluids poses a problem, as well as inadequate attention to detail when cleaning surfaces in hospital rooms. Following appropriate cleaning protocols is important. However, emerging research suggests that ultraviolet (UV) light kills MRSA more effectively than traditional cleaning protocols.

Chetan Jinadatha and a team of VA researchers in Texas compared the effectiveness of two surface decontamination techniques: standard manual cleaning and pulsed-xenon ultraviolet light (PPX-UV). Decontamination using PPX-UV was more successful with respect to ridding hospital rooms of MRSA by a factor of seven; the scientists recommend adding 15 minutes' worth of PPX-UV exposure to each hospital room cleaning session in order to minimize the risk of MRSA exposure for subsequent inhabitants of the rooms. The researchers acknowledged receiving some funding from Xenex Healthcare Services, LLC, which makes PPX-UV decontamination devices.