Germ-zapping ‘robots’ can only do so much

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They sweep. They swab. They sterilise. And still the germs persist

Michael Claesphoto: AP
Michael Claesphoto: AP

They sweep. They swab. They sterilize. And still the germs persist.

In U.S. hospitals, an estimated 1 in 20 patients pick up infections they didn’t have when they arrived, some caused by dangerous ‘superbugs’ that are hard to treat.

The rise of these superbugs, along with increased pressure from the government and insurers, is driving hospitals to try all sorts of new approaches to stop their spread.

Machines that resemble “Star Wars” robots and emit ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide vapours. Germ-resistant copper bed rails, call buttons and IV poles.

While these products can help get a room clean, their true impact is still debatable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month sounded an alarm about a “nightmare bacteria” resistant to one class of antibiotics.

The diarrhoea-causing C-diff is now linked to 14,000 U.S. deaths annually. C-diff is particularly difficult to clean away. Alcohol-based hand sanitisers don’t work and C-diff can persist for days.

Michael Claes developed a bad case of C-diff while he was a kidney patient at a New York hospital. Claes felt the hospital’s room cleaning and infection control was less than perfect.

Not only surgical knives and operating rooms need a thorough cleaning but also spots like bed rails and even television remote controls.

Enter companies like Xenex Healthcare Services, that makes a portable, $125,000 machine that’s rolled into rooms to zap C-diff and other germs dead with UV light.

Some experts say there’s not enough evidence to show the machines are worth it. “Environments get dirty again,” Dr. L. Clifford McDonald of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, and thorough cleaning ought to do the job.

“If your hospital’s not clean, you’re creating more problems than you’re solving,” said Christian Lillis, who runs a small foundation named after his mother who died from a C-diff infection.AP



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