Study finds drug-resistant bacteria can colonize in drains, spread to sinks and eventually reach patients

February 27, 2017

MONDAY, Feb. 27, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that the battle against "superbugs" -- multidrug-resistant bacteria -- should begin in hospital sinks.

In the study, scientists found that germs colonize in drainpipes and gradually make their way into sinks. The researchers warned that this is one way hospital patients could be exposed to superbugs.

Previous research has shown that patients are dying from multidrug-resistant bacterial infections while in the hospital. More than 32 studies have described the spread of bacteria resistant to the last-resort antibiotic, carbapenem, through sinks and other areas where water can pool inside hospitals, the study authors explained.

"We wanted to better understand how transmission occurs, so that the numbers of these infections could be reduced," said lead investigator Dr. Amy Mathers. She is an associate professor of medicine and pathology at the University of Virginia.

To investigate the issue, the research team created five identical sinks in a lab. The sinks were replicas of intensive-care unit sinks at the University of Virginia's Charlottesville hospital.

The researchers contaminated the sinks with E. coli bacteria, which typically lives harmlessly in the human digestive tract but can acquire harmful genes and become resistant to antibiotics.

After colonizing in drains, the bacteria slowly started to grow toward the sink strainers, growing 1 inch each day, the study revealed. It took one week for the bacteria to reach hospital sink strainers. Once there, the germs were soon splashed around the sink, the counters and other nearby sinks, the findings showed.

The study was published Feb. 24 in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

The researchers are now working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pinpoint exactly how the sink bacteria reach patients.

"This type of foundational research is needed to understand how these bacteria are transmitted, so that we can develop and test potential intervention strategies that can be used to prevent further spread," Mathers explained in a journal news release.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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