One of the most pressing health problems facing the world is not a disease sending people to the hospital, but something that people are catching while they’re there.
Intrahospital infections were estimated as the fourth highest cause of death in U.S. hospitals in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the cost to the health system in that country is estimated at US$ 45,000 million a year.
Now, a Chilean hospital is pioneering a new strategy to dramatically reduce the amount of harmful bacteria present in medical facilities, using one of the country’s greatest natural assets: copper.
Chile is the primary producer of copper in the world, and not only is this fueling a rapid expansion of the economy, the metal’s inherent antimicrobial properties are set to place Chile’s medical facilities – already some of the best in continent – at the forefront of the fight against hospital infections.
According to figures released by the International Copper Association, copper reduces the bacterial presence on surfaces and objects by around 83 percent, and lowers infection rates by around 40 percent.
With the support of Chile’s state-owned mining company, Codelco, the Roberto del Río pediatric hospital in Santiago’s working-class neighborhood of Independencia will become the first in Latin America to coat the surface material of its wards and instruments with antimicrobial copper.
The mineral will first be used to coat the bed rails and levers, sinks and faucets, work surfaces, and medical equipment and instruments in the critical patients unit (UPC in its Spanish acronym), which comprises the intensive care and treatment centers.
By the end of 2012, the hospital aims to cover the entire complex with the compound.
Codelco’s Executive President Diego Hernández issued a statement saying that it was the “desire and ambition” of the world’s largest copper producer to “equip a UPC in a hospital complex in every one of the Chile’s 17 regions with antibacterial copper.”
New uses of copper that exploit its antimicrobial properties are also being planned for application in transport, education, public spaces, aquaculture cages and food containers, and are expected to add significantly to the demand for the 500 million tons of the red metal that is consumed annually around the world.