New research has found copper to be an effective antimicrobial agent, killing nearly all pathogens in certain parts of hospitals, for instance.

In a study presented at the World Health Organization's first International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control (ICPIC), researchers said copper surfaces substantially reduced the risk of infection.

Copper's rapid destruction of pathogens could prevent mutational resistance developing and also help reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance genes to receptive and potentially more virulent organisms, said Professor Bill Keevil, Head of the Microbiology Group and Director of the Environmental Healthcare Unit at the University of Southampton.

Extensive laboratory tests have demonstrated copper's antimicrobial efficacy against key organisms responsible for these infections, and clinical trials around the world are now reporting on its efficacy in busy, real-world environments.

Antimicrobial copper surfaces in intensive care units (ICU) kill 97 percent of bacteria that can cause hospital-acquired infections, the preliminary research indicated.

The results also showed a 40 percent reduction in the risk of acquiring an infection.

Bacteria present on ICU room surfaces are probably responsible for 35-80 percent of patient infections, demonstrating how critical it is to keep hospitals clean, Keevil said.

The copper objects used in the clinical trial supplemented cleaning protocols, lowered microbial levels, and resulted in a statistically significant reduction in the number of infections contracted by patients treated in those rooms.

Researchers at the three hospitals involved in the trial - Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, both in Charleston, South Carolina - replaced commonly-touched items such as bed rails, overbed tray tables, nurse call buttons and IV poles with antimicrobial copper versions.

The study, funded by the US Department of Defense, was designed to determine the efficacy of antimicrobial copper in reducing the level of pathogens in hospital rooms, and whether such a reduction would translate into a lower rate of infection.