Gloved hands killing germs

Armor: A medical supplier has developed high-tech gear that goes beyond protection by actually wiping out pathogens.

Medicine & Science

March 29, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Medical gloves have come a long way since the 18th century, when they were made from the intestines of sheep - and only partially covered the doctor's hand.

Today, they're carrying out high-tech germ warfare.

Although they look, feel and even smell like ordinary medical gloves, a new design that could be on the U.S. market by the end of the year emits a gas that's safe to humans but deadly to everything from HIV to E. coli.

All the new glove needs to start working is a little ambient light.

"It kills ... every microorganism we've exposed to it," said Dr. Michael Barza, chief of medicine at Boston's Caritas Carney Hospital and a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, who has tested the gloves' efficacy.

In an age of infectious diseases such as AIDS and SARS, glove use has skyrocketed - to the point where virtually nothing is done in a medical setting without them. Some health care workers go through dozens of pairs in a single day, while hospitals can go through millions a year.

Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as medical "devices," gloves are available in mind-boggling variety. There are sterile and nonsterile gloves. There are gloves made of latex, vinyl, nitrile and a range of other synthetics. Some are coated inside with cornstarch powder, while others are hypoallergenic or powder-free. And they're no longer just clear or opaque white: Doctors and nurses who want to make a fashion statement can glove up in fluorescent orange, purple or even hot pink.

A French rubber goods company has devised a surgical glove that contains a virus-killing liquid sandwiched between layers of the fabric. The idea is to reduce the potential infection of health care workers whose gloves are punctured by a needle.

A company in Los Angeles has developed a double-layered surgical glove with a single cuff at the wrist so that surgeons won't have to don two separate pairs, as they do now to provide extra protection.

Some surgeons already are using a glove that moisturizes their skin while they work. It's coated inside with a dried form of aloe vera, which is activated by the heat of the wearer's hands.

"We've got a zillion different kinds," said Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, physician in chief at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. "Me, I just wear whatever."

One recent day, Scalea went through about 15 pairs of sterile gloves during five separate surgeries as well as "countless" nonsterile pairs while outside the operating room. He says the advent of AIDS revolutionized the way hospitals treat infection control.

"Old men like me that trained before we knew what HIV disease was, we never wore gloves when I put IVs in as a resident," Scalea said. "It never would have occurred to me to put on gloves."

Last year, hospitals spent about $529 on gloves for every licensed bed, according to a survey by Hospital Materials Management, an industry newsletter. That was up 34 percent, compared with $396 for each bed in 2002. Many hospitals have abandoned powdered latex gloves because of allergies and are using higher-priced alternatives, accounting for some of the increase.

Sir William Halsted, a founding physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was among the first to introduce rubber gloves to the OR. The move wasn't, it turns out, for the most scientific of reasons.

According to an account in the Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, Halsted commissioned the Goodyear Rubber Company of New York to make a pair of gloves for his scrub nurse in 1890. The nurse, Caroline Hampton, had been complaining of skin irritation from constantly washing her hands in a harsh antibacterial solution.

The journal noted that Halsted may have been "especially attentive" to the woman's concerns. She later became his wife.

While some of his colleagues adopted gloves, the master surgeon didn't start wearing them himself until his protege, Dr. Joseph Bloodgood, used them during hernia operations and reported a near 100 percent drop in infections.

Studies have shown, perhaps surprisingly, that hospital staff today wash their hands about half as often as they should. Lack of proper hand washing undoubtedly contributes to some of the 2 million infections acquired in U.S. hospitals every year.

Medical gloves, of course, have helped reduce the number of such infections. But Barza, the Boston doctor, thinks the new antimicrobial gloves - which were developed by Bernard Technologies Inc. - have the potential to reduce cross-contamination even more.

"There are lots of holes in the system with respect to transmission [of germs] by hands," said Barza, who sits on the company's board. "We think we are adding an extra layer of defense beyond the simple barrier effect."

Barza said the gloves emit the gaseous form of chlorine dioxide, which has been shown to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and spores, which have protective coats.

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