NEW YORK — The nurse washes her hands according to procedure, gloves are changed, anti-contamination rules are followed. But still, MRSA finds its way onto her scrubs and into the room of the next patient.

It’s an all too easy way for such antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other diseases to be transmitted, a new study from Duke University Hospital finds. Following 40 nurses over three shifts, researchers found their scrubs became newly contaminated with bacteria in 16 out of 120 shifts.

Doctors, nurses performing surgery in operating room
A new study finds that nurses’ scrubs too often become contaminated with bacteria, particularly MRSA, in hospitals.

MRSA was among the most frequently found contaminants. Nurses who were studied worked in medical and surgical intensive care units

“Healthcare providers must understand that they can become contaminated by their patients and the environment near patients,” says study lead author Dr. Deverick Anderson in a press release.

Director of the Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention at Duke University Medical Center, Anderson says the study also involved nurses wearing antimicrobial scrubs on some shifts. These were found to be ineffective at preventing contamination.

With approximately 1 in 25 patients contracting an infection as a result of healthcare each year, the study authors said their research is of growing importance, especially considering that 75,000 die in the hospital each year as a result of these healthcare-associated infections.

According to the study authors, “the complex interactions involved in pathogen transmission among patients, HCPs, and the environment are largely unknown.”

Out of the thousands of cultures taken for the study, the researchers found the most commonly transmitted pathogen was Staphylococcus aureus “including MRSA and methicillin susceptible S. aureus.”

The results are consistent with a study published earlier this year that found hospital room floors are covered in bacteria, including MRSA, though C.diff was the most common pathogen found in rooms.

What can be done? It seems there is still a lot of work to be done in finding ways to combat the issue. And while doctors and scientists scramble for solutions, the problem persists.

“There is no such thing as a sterile environment,” says Anderson. “Bacteria and pathogens will always be in the environment. Hospitals need to create and use protocols for improved cleaning of the healthcare environment, and patients and family members should feel empowered to ask healthcare providers if they are doing everything they can to keep their loved one from being exposed to bacteria in the environment.”

As far as specific recommendations, researchers suggested greater attention to hand-washing after visiting patients rooms and using gowns and gloves — even if healthcare providers didn’t come in direct contact with patients.

Elsewhere, other doctors are turning to more futuristic interventions. In some 400 hospitals and healthcare sites around the world, “LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robots” have put into use. Emitting ultraviolet light to neutralize bacteria, the technology has been shown to reduce infection rates by more than 70 percent according to data from clinical studies pointed to on the company’s website.

Showing more modest, but still significant results, a study of such UV light technologies — also out of Duke University this year and published in The Lancet —  “finds use of UVC machines can cut transmission of four major superbugs by a cumulative 30 percent.”

In another futuristic attempt to combat MRSA, the superbug was sent to space this year aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon capsule. According to a Gizmodo article on the experiment, this was done because bacteria has been shown to mutate faster in microgravity — allowing scientists to more efficiently study the ways it can evolve its abilities to resist antibiotics.

As such high-tech measures are taken, other scientists are looking back and wondering where MRSA came from in the first place. In a piece for SeekingAlpha, science writer Derek Lowe contemplates a recent paper showing that MRSA seems to have emerged earlier than previously thought — showing up almost concurrently with the first widespread use of antibiotics like penicillin.

“This adds to the usual feeling that we get, looking back at the earlier use of antibiotics and wanting to yell at everyone ‘Don’t do that!’ Too late now,” Lowe writes. “The whole story is a festival of unintended consequences, which we’re living with now.”

The findings of Duke University’s study on the presence of MRSA and other bacteria on scrubs were published this week in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

About Calum Mckinney

I'm a writer and content creator focused on science and art. I live in Baltimore, Maryland with my cat Maggie.

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