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Scientists in the US have linked the spread of the hospital super bug MRSA to a sharp increase in the use of technology in hospitals.

Researchers working in hospitals have found that the deadly bacteria clings to the keys of the computer keyboards used to update patient records and therefore can re-infect the hands of staff even after they had washed their hands.

There were 55 deaths from MRSA in UK hospitals in 1993, but fatalities have increased every year since and by 2003 were running at nearly a 1,000 annually, according to the National Office of Statistics.

The US findings, which were presented to the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America earlier this month, found that just touching a keyboard is enough to pick up the bacteria and pass it onto a patient.

The researchers also found that cleaning IT equipment with soap and water was not enough to remove the bacteria.

The only way to clear the infection from the keyboards, according to Dr Gary Norskin from the Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago who carried out the study, was to rinse the keyboard with disinfectant.

"A computer keyboard is like any other surface in a hospital and has to be sterilised," said Norskin, Northwestern Hospital's director of healthcare.

The Chicago study is part of a new trend in the US which is now taking a long hard look at how the introduction of computer equipment into hospitals can often represent a health risk.

Computers quickly become magnets for airborne dust and bacteria-harbouring dirt, which builds up on their internal cooling fans.

The fans represent a further health hazard because of their potential to blow that same dust around a ward.

"Anything that can put bacteria into the air is a risk," said Norskin. "If you bang into a computer and disturb that dust you can effectively create a dust cloud."

Doctors at the Oklahoma Heart Hospital have already started to address the problem.

"We have computers everywhere because our goal it to have a paperless hospital and to have computers everywhere a patient goes,” said Jeff Jones, Oklahoma Hospital's lead system specialist.

"Computers harbouring bacteria is a very big concern of ours because we have computers only three feet away from patients in our operating rooms and we can't have dirt in places like that," he said, adding that tuberculosis is another potential risk from technology as it is the world's number one airborne disease.

"We did experiment with waterproof keyboards that you can wipe clean but found out that they were generating a lot of keystroke errors that could have been just as dangerous for patients," said Jones.

A spokesman for the UK’s National Health Service confirmed that the department's computer specialists were looking into the concerns and that the agency responsible, NHS Connecting for Health, was conducting a study into the issue at University College London to find the risks.

Dr Paul Grime, the British Medical Association's spokesman on MRSA commented: "If computers and keyboards are going to be next to people's beds then this is something that we have to be aware of because this equipment is no different from any other hard surface in a hospital but the key to this is hand hygiene and staff have to get used to washing their hands before and after touching a patient.”

Such health risks have not gone unnoticed by the computer industry which has moved quickly to respond to the threat created by technology in hospital.

"Very shortly UK hospitals are expected to switch to electronic medical records in line with the national Programme for IT which means there is going to be a computer device in every patient care room," said Ken Nott, of the computer company ClearCube, which supplies clean computer systems without fans. "You can wash your hands but not your PC." ®

Peter Warren is a freelance journalist specialising in technology, undercover investigations and science issues. You can find out more about him at Future Intelligence.

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