In a study published this week, we learn that alcohol hand sanitizer in hospitals has coincided with an increase, not a decrease, in some difficult to treat infections.
A number of strains of offending bugs have adapted to the alcohol-based hand sanitizers, like the type you see in hospitals and clinics where doctors, nurses and other employees pump containers numerous times an hour, before and after patient contact. The infection-causing agents are not completely resistant to alcohol but are becoming more and more tolerant over the years since alcohol sanitation use has increased.
Unfortunately, healthcare associated illness (HAI) statistics are dire. HAIs impact 5 to 10 percent of hospitalized patients in the US per year. That translates to approximately 1.7 million HAIs which cause 99,000 deaths alongside about $20 billion in extra medical expenditure.
And though strides have been made, there remains resistance among health care providers to consistently and correctly wash the hands. There has been a tremendous amount of research and all kinds of programs in clinical settings to encourage correct and consistent handwashing before and after patient contact. And now we know that indeed, hand washing, as opposed to the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, remains the gold standard.
We can harken back to the work done by Ignaz Semmelweis in the mid 19th century, who first understood that illnesses could be transferred between people–this before germs had been identified—and that one way to help prevent the spread of illness was to wash the hands. We have come full circle: the actual best way to get rid of bacteria that cause infections is to use soap and water and wash the offending agent(s) down the drain.
Lance Price, the founding director of George Washington University’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, who was not involved with the study cited says,
“I always thought of alcohol as being like a sledgehammer. But clearly, these are innovative organisms. And evolution happens pretty fast when you’re dealing with populations that can double every 30 minutes and travel in packs of billions.”
We can extrapolate from here: when we are trying to cut down on transmittable germs, to help prevent the spread of common ailments, and other illnesses, forgo the alcohol disinfectants, hit that bar or bottle of soap and let the water run clean.