Superbugs evolve to survive hand sanitizer

Alcohol-Resistant Bacteria

AT hospitals around the world, staff dutifully slather on hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of infections.

In a study of what the researchers described as a "new wave of superbugs", the team also found specific genetic changes over 20 years in vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, or VRE - and were able to track and show its growing resistance.

A team of scientists from the University of Melbourne, led by microbiologist Timothy Stinear and infectious disease expert Paul Johnson, chose to conduct a research after they noticed that an increase in the usage of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in hospitals caused a significant decline of some species of bacteria, while others became even more active. 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.

In particular, the resistance acquired by the bacteria Enterococcus faecium, which may explain the increase in the number of these microorganisms in the hospital premises.

To better understand the reasons for this bacteria's spread, researchers analysed bacterial samples taken from two hospitals in Melbourne, Australia, from 1997 to 2015.

The bacteria's improved ability to survive hand sanitizer lined up with the hospitals' gradual increase in use of alcohol-based sanitizers. This experiment, which was repeated several times, showed that alcohol-resistant bacteria infected significantly more rodents than older and less resistant strains. They then took hospital-grade disinfectant wipes, wiped down the cages, and let mice crawl around inside for an hour.

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. In the result, it was found that more "young" strains of bacteria 70% more resistant to disinfectants alcohol-based. Subsequent testing revealed that mice exposed to the alcohol-tolerant samples were more likely to have Enterococcus faecium colonizing in their guts.

"The alcohol hand-hygiene programs have been highly successful, particularly at controlling MRSA, but also other types of hospital infections, and I would strongly advocate that we continue", study co-author Paul Johnson says in the Doherty Institute video.

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