Hand washing is the primary defense against spreading germs. (Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters )
Germs that reside on doctors' lab coats, nurses' uniforms and hospital bed curtains are known to contribute to an unacceptably high rate of hospital-acquired infections. And that's just for starters. It turns out that papers passed around hospital offices, labs and patient rooms are potent transmitters of germs too.
The fact that paper can carry bacteria is not a surprise. Other studies have demonstrated how filthy paper money is. The new study, however, makes clear that hospitals need to treat paper-transmitted bacteria seriously because the germs transfer from hand to paper so easily.
Researchers in Germany contaminated paper with four types of common bacteria and had volunteers handle the paper. They found that bacteria survived on the paper for at least 72 hours and could still be cultivated from paper a week later. The bacteria could be easily transferred from paper to hand and back to paper.
"Once contaminated, paper is hard to disinfect because it cannot be disinfected by chemical means, as other inanimate surfaces can," the authors noted. That means good old hand-washing will have to suffice. In addition, more hospitals are switching to electronic records although keyboards and screens require regular disinfecting.
Some hospitals are resorting to an additional strategy, noted the author of a commentary accompanying the study, published in the American Journal of Nursing. AJN editor-in-chief Maureen Shawn Kennedy writes: "In some hospitals, patients are expected to be their own last line of defense: they're told to ask every person who enters their room, 'Have you washed your hands?' "
It's hard enough to recover from serious illness without having to play germ sentry.
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