Some bacteria can thrive on computer keyboards

Medical Matters

June 09, 2006|By JUDY FOREMAN

Should you disinfect your computer keyboard? Will this harm it?

Computer keyboards are a breeding ground for bacteria, especially when keyboards are shared, according to a recent study published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, led by William A. Rutala, an epidemiologist at the UNC Health Care System, swabbed 25 computer keyboards that were used frequently by multiple nurses and other health care providers.

As expected, the keyboards were teeming with bacteria, Rutala said. (The team did not look for viruses.) In a second phase of the study, the team deliberately put certain known strains of bacteria on keyboards to see how well commonly available disinfectants worked.

The team used three products containing quaternary ammonium compounds: Chlorox wipes, CaviWipes and Sani-Cloths. All worked well, removing 95 percent to 100 percent of bacteria.

So did three other products, plain old 70 percent isopropyl alcohol, the germicide Vesphene and a chlorine product containing 80 parts of chlorine per million.

"These are all inexpensive, they're just pennies per wipe," Rutala said. All the products can also kill viruses, he said. And even sterile water was able to remove, though not inactivate, keyboard bacteria.

To see whether all this disinfecting damaged keyboards, Rutala's team wiped each of the IBM laptop keyboards 300 times with each of the six disinfectants. No damage was done.

Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer for Harvard Medical School and for Caregroup, which owns Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, recommended that in areas where they are shared, hospitals should use "membrane" keyboards, with a thin layer of plastic that covers the keys, making the keyboard easier to clean.

It's also essential, he said, for health care providers who share keyboards, especially in a hospital setting, to be compulsive about hand washing before using shared keyboards.

Are there any dietary ways to help bedsores heal faster?

Yes: eating lots of protein. Bedsores, also known as pressure ulcers, occur when people lie or sit without moving for hours, said Joyce Black, president of the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Once a pressure ulcer develops and the protective skin barrier is broken, bacteria can get into the body, triggering potentially fatal infections, such as the one that killed actor Christopher Reeve in October 2004.

"Bedsores can come on in hours, and they can get really huge," said Black, who is also an associate professor of nursing at the University of Nebraska College of Nursing.

An estimated 11 percent of patients in hospitals and 23 percent of those in nursing homes have pressure ulcers, as do many people who are paralyzed. Pressure ulcers have also brought on countless lawsuits. The sores become such a serious problem that the government has set a goal of reducing the incidence by 50 percent by 2010.

To get a pressure ulcer to heal, patients must frequently move - or be turned over - so that blood can reach all areas of the skin to rebuild damaged tissue. But eating is essential, too.

"We have seen patients have tremendous delays in healing because their protein intake is too low," Black said. "You need more protein, and more calories, to fuel the engine to make the cells. You can't eat tea and toast and think this will get better." In addition to protein-rich foods, Black recommended nutrient drinks such as Ensure and Boost.

An eight-week, randomized, controlled study of 89 patients by Dr. S. Kwon Lee, a certified wound specialist in Cleveland, published in March in the journal Skin and Wound Care showed that a protein supplement called Pro-Stat improved the healing rate of pressure ulcers by 96 percent.

Lee, who said he had no financial connections to the manufacturer of Pro-Stat, attributed the success of the protein drink to the fact that its protein is "pre-digested." That means it is already broken down into the amino acids the body can use immediately. But he added that even protein from other types of drinks or food "does help improve the healing of wounds if the body has the energy reserves to utilize them."

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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