Superbugs evolve to survive hand sanitizer

Desiree Burns
August 7, 2018

Amongst them, especially Enterococcus faecium shows signs of drug resistance, which made this species a flawless subject of study for the scientists.

Enterococci account for about one in 10 cases of hospital-acquired bacterial infections around the world, and are the fourth-and fifth-leading cause of sepsis in North America and Europe, respectively, according to background information in the article. To see how effectively alcohol would kill off the bacteria, researchers collected more than a hundred E. faecium samples from two Melbourne hospitals and exposed them to diluted isopropyl alcohol.

Healthcare entities, including nursing homes, often use hand rubs and washes that contain alcohol in efforts to defeat superbugs such as VRE and MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It has to be noted that the usage of hand sanitizer in hospitals began to significantly increase in 2002.

They found that samples collected after 2009 were on average more resistant to the alcohol compared with bacteria taken from before 2004. In fact, it took a 70-percent alcohol mixture to kill the bacteria completely, which is somewhat disconcerting, since hand sanitizers typically boast 60 percent alcohol concentrations.

During the study time period, strains of E. faecium developed an improved ability to withstand alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The authors then seeded different E. faecium isolates onto the floors of mouse cages and found that the alcohol-tolerant isolates better colonized the guts of mice that were housed in the cages after the cages were cleaned with isopropyl alcohol wipes.

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After collecting bacteria from two hospitals in Australia between 1997 and 2015, researchers discovered that a "new wave of superbugs" - one that is more resistant to the alcohol used in hand sanitizers - appeared to emerge. It is possible that the bacteria are simply becoming resistant to hand sanitizers, but something more complex could be at work.

Another limitation of the new study is its size: the scientists only focused on Australian hospitals.

Being "tolerant" means the bacteria can survive exposure to alcohol longer.

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

The researchers - led by infectious disease expert Paul Johnson and microbiologist Timothy Stinear of the University of Melbourne - said hospitals shouldn't stop using hand sanitizer based on these findings. "However ... we may have to add additional control measures for VRE outbreaks".

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