Harmful bacteria can linger on
computer keyboards in hospitals, making it easy for the
germs to spread to patients, a new study finds.
To combat the problem, a
research team led by Dr. Gary Noskin, medical director for
healthcare epidemiology and quality at Northwestern Memorial
Hospital in Chicago, suggests that those using multi-user
computers should wash their hands after each use. In addition,
computer keyboards should be disinfected regularly.
Another expert, Dr. Philip
Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology
at New York University Medical Center and author of The
Secret Life of Germs, goes even further and advises
that computer keyboards in schools and libraries should
be disinfected often to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.
Computer use in hospitals
and other health-care facilities is multiplying rapidly,
Noskin said. "We wanted to determine whether keyboards could
be a reservoir for the transmission of bacteria that people
are afraid of in hospitals," he added.
In the study, Noskin's group
looked at three bacteria commonly found in hospitals: vancomycin-resistant
Enterococcus faecium (VRE), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus
aureus (MRSA) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PSAE).
VRE and MRSA are bacteria
that have developed a resistance to antibiotics, such as
vancomycin and methicillin, which are commonly used to treat
While VRE and PSAE seldom
cause problems except in hospitalized patients whose immune
systems are compromised, there have been outbreaks of MRSA
skin infections in otherwise healthy people. This so-called
community-acquired MRSA is resistant to antibiotics and
can cause skin boils and blood poisoning.
The researchers put each
bacterium on keyboards and keyboard covers to see how long
they survived. They also typed on the keyboards to see if
the bacteria could be transferred to the fingertips.
Noskin's team found that
VRE and MRSA could survive up to 24 hours after being placed
on keyboards or keyboard covers. However, PSAE could survive
only up to one hour on the keyboard and five minutes on
the keyboard cover.
The study also found that
the more contact with contaminated keyboards, the more likely
the bacteria transmitted to the hands, from 42 percent to
92 percent of the time for MRSA, 22 percent to 50 percent
for VRE, and 9 percent to 18 percent for PSAE.
The findings were to be presented
April 11 at the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America's
scientific session, in Los Angeles.
Effective hand washing can
prevent the spread of these bacteria, Noskin said. "Health-care
workers, after being in contact with keyboards, need to
really wash their hands before they come in contact with
The researchers also tested
the effectiveness of disinfectants commonly used in hospitals
to clean the computers. The most effective disinfectant
was one where the solution remains on the keyboard for 10
minutes before it's wiped off.
Noskin doesn't think it's
realistic to make computer keyboards sterile. "We live in
an era of bacteria, and they are all over our environment,"
Tierno agrees that hand washing
is most important, but he also thinks that keyboards should
be disinfected after each use. "This is not new to me,"
he said. "In my office, we use a computer keyboard that
has an antibacterial product in it, which kills organisms
on the surface. Despite that, we still use disinfectant."
In hospitals, Tierno said,
cutting down on the spread of bacteria from person to person
is beneficial. But preventing the passage of antibiotic-resistant
bacteria such as MRSA outside the hospital is equally important,
Tierno believes that any
computer keyboard that is used by many users should be disinfected
where individuals in sporting venues and non-hospital conditions,
in gyms, in schools, in areas where multiple users have
access to computers, they, too, should be disinfected, because
we can transfer MRSA quite easily by contact," he said.
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