Tucson researcher finds microbes in laundered hospital cleaning towels

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A Tucson scientist, known as Dr. Germ, has set his sights on hospital cleaning towels, and has found something that could change the way hospitals do things.

When we go to the hospital there can be the risk of getting even sicker while we're there because of what's called "hospital acquired infection."

It's something hospitals realize is there, and try to avoid.

Still, studies show about one million Americans a year get a hospital acquired infection.

University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba has found that the very things hospitals use to keep patient rooms clean could be spreading germs.

Dr. Gerba's job is to find where germs are lurking to give us a fighting chance against them.

He has turned his microscope on the reusable towels hospitals use to clean patient rooms.

"We wanted to find out what kind of bacteria were in these towels," Gerba says of the study.

"We actually did find, surprisingly, significant numbers of bacteria in these and we found bacteria in some of these that would cause infection in patients. or have been documented to cause infections in patients before," Gerba says.

Gerba says understanding where there might be reservoirs of bacteria that could be spread from one patient to another is more important than ever.

He says, apparently the disinfectant isn't strong enough to kill all the germs. Then, when the towels are washed and dried, some microbes still survive.

"The kind of bacteria we found in these towels wouldn't affect probably normal, healthy people, but they would immuno-compromised people," Gerba says.

Dr. Gerba says his team, including Dr. Laura Sifuentes, found mostly fecal bacteria, and especially E. coli that can become antibiotic resistant, making a potential infection more difficult to treat.

He says hospitals are aware of the issue of hospital acquired infection and are proactive in trying to prevent it.

His discovery might lead them to take further steps.

"Our recommendation is that the hospitals probably need a standard protocol for washing, cleaning and disinfecting reusable towels and I think nobody's really developed one and I think that really is needed," Gerba says.

Dr. Gerba's team studied reusable cotton towels from 10 randomly chosen Arizona hospitals that he says would be similar to hospitals across the country.

They are not named in the study which was paid for by Kimberly-Clark, a company that produces several hospital products.

Dr. Gerba's study was published in the "American Journal of Infection Control," a journal hospital infection control specialists read.

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