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Hand sanitizers may be growing less effective against a hospital superbug, study finds

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Melbourne, Australia — An antibiotic-resistant hospital superbug may be growing progressively more tolerant to alcohols used in hand sanitizers and disinfectants, according to a recent study from Austin Health and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

Researchers analyzed 139 isolated samples of the bacterium Enterococcus faecium – a strain of the “superbug” vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, or VRE – collected between 1997 and 2015. Findings showed that E. faecium samples taken after 2010 were 10 times more resistant to alcohol than older isolates, and thus more likely to spread VRE infections.

This development came in contrast to the reaction of another superbug, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, against which hand sanitizers and disinfectants maintained their effectiveness, states a video released Aug. 1 by the Doherty Institute.

“So, the insight there was, well, maybe the VRE … has learned somehow to become more tolerant to the ethanol or the alcohols that we use in these hand hygiene products,” Paul Johnson, study co-author and Austin Health research director and professor, said in the video. “The alcohol hygiene products have been highly successful, particularly at controlling MRSA, but also other types of hospital infections, and I would strongly advocate that we continue.

“However, with certain pathogens – and it looks like perhaps VRE – we may have to consider not relying on … standard precautions, where we just prevent … infection in everybody by just using hand hygiene. But we may have to specifically add additional control measures for VRE outbreaks.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant bacteria trigger infections in at least 2 million people nationwide every year, leading to at least 23,000 deaths.

The study was published online Aug. 1 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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