A tragic statistic tells us that of all the people admitted to hospitals for various reasons, about 10% will get sick from an infection picked up in the hospital, something called a Healthcare Acquired Infection (HAI) or nosocomial infection. Of these, about 5% will die from it, which corresponds to about 10,000 Canadian deaths per year. The additional costs of treating these infections add up to between $4 and $5 billion in Canada. The consequences are proportionately similar in other regions such as the U.S. and Europe. The increases in antibiotic resistance in bacteria are adding to the problem.
Hospital infection control has traditionally focused on hand-washing, isolation, and cleaning and disinfection protocols to minimize the spread of “germs”. However, there is a limit to how far these can go, since they rely on consistent human behaviour, which is naturally inconsistent. Therefore in recent years there has been more focus on “engineered” approaches to infection control. To this end, my research group and I have been working with the Coalition for Healthcare Acquired Infection Reduction (CHAIR) to help develop and test materials, processes and devices that may help in the fight against HAIs.
One project we finished tested the effects of an automated ultraviolet light (UV) disinfection device placed in patients’ bathrooms to control the background bacterial contamination between uses. The paper can be read on this website. The data indicated that it was possible to dramatically lower bacterial contamination levels with this device, which was nice to see.
In other work, we’ve been collaborating with Aereus Technologies to develop new antimicrobial materials and coatings for use on hospital “high-touch” surfaces and equipment. This doesn’t eliminate the need for surface cleaning and disinfection, but it helps to kill the germs that land there between cleanings and thus reduce the chance for spread of infections.
In other more basic research, we’ve been collaborating with various other professors here at Waterloo to identify novel antimicrobial materials or detection methods for contaminants. For example, with Prof. Michael Tam’s group we’ve published a couple of studies on antibacterial cellulose materials (abstracts are available here and here). We recently published another paper on detection of bacterial contamination in water using an interesting combination of enzymology and nanotechnology.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with Chemical Engineering, well basically this is chemical engineering. Working with production and characterization of materials, interactions of materials, life science and biochemistry…those are all part of chemical engineering education and possible career paths.
Hopefully over the next few years this HAI problem will begin to see some progress and we can continue to contribute to the solutions.