When it comes to infectious pathogens, antibiotics are considered the first and most efficient line of defence. While resistant bacterial strains are becoming more and more common and dangerous, we have learned to rely entirely on synthetic or natural formulations to protect human health. Commercial products, like toothpastes, soaps and household cleaners are also loaded with antimicrobial compounds in an effort to prevent microbes from thriving. But what if there are simple and practically free ways to maintain health and prevent disease? Decades-old research proves that some of the most dangerous pathogenic culprits hardly need sophisticated ways to be controlled.
Experiments conducted in the midst of cold war showed that pathogenic bacteria cannot survive if exposed unprotected in fresh air. Microbiologists Hendry Druett and K.R. May found out that within 2 hours the vast majority of E. coli colonies were dead, after being exposed to air currents outside of their lab. Conversely, if the same bacteria were kept confined in boxes at identical temperature and humidity conditions, but still outside of the lab, more than 50 percent of them survived.
When the cold war threats faded away, so did these remarkable experiments, or at least so we are told. Florence Nightingale, the famous British nurse, reportedly slashed hospital death rates by applying simple methods, such as throwing the windows open. Her principles regarding appropriate arrangement in hospital wards, led to the Nightingale wards. These long and narrow rooms had windows reaching up to the ceiling, allowing fresh air to circulate freely.
The long sides of the rooms were facing south, which additionally let in as much sunshine in as possible. The health benefits of sunlight became widely recognised for tuberculosis patients, for whom UV light was considered standard therapy before the widespread use of antibiotics. Like fresh air, sunlight not only kills directly pathogens, but improves body defences by boosting vitamin D production in the body, a mighty anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory substance.
Air renewal in hospitals now is accomplished through mechanical ventilation systems, which recycle and filter existing air. Since the 70s, the need for energy efficiency does not allow opening windows or giving priority to let healing sun rays in the hospital rooms. This has certainly played a role in the widespread problem of resistant pathogens currently thriving in hospitals.
The number and variety of such super microbial strains have increased so dramatically in the last decades that hospitals are now considered one of the biggest sources of antibiotic-resistant diarrhoea and wound infections. Common bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus have evolved to form an army of super-resistant strains, such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which are responsible for persistent hospital infections. Apart from the lack of fresh, clean air and sunlight, the widespread of antibiotics is also a main driving force behind this bacterial evolution.
Back to Basics
The pressure created by this new generation of resistant pathogens has pushed for new and cost-effective ways to battle hospital infections. Getting hospital staff to wash their hands is another old fashioned method revived in an effort to reduce difficult hospital infections. This simple step alone dramatically reduced MRSA rates in UK hospitals by 80 percent within the last decade.
The World Health Organisation recommends access to fresh air for all health care settings as an efficient way to reduce the transmission of infections. “Natural ventilation can be one of the effective environmental measures to reduce the risk of spread of infections in health care”.
These simple methods show that killing microbes is not strictly a matter of using adequate antibiotics or antimicrobial substances; quite the opposite. Abuse of such compounds creates a tremendous environmental pressure for all kinds of microbes, forcing the most virulent and resistant strains to survive and thrive in the absence of other bacterial competitors. With appropriate organization and design of hospital spaces to make the most of the natural antimicrobial power of sunlight and fresh air, the necessity to use antibiotics and antimicrobials could be minimal.
Frank Swain. A Breath of Fresh Air. New Scientist. December 14, 2013.
WHO. 2009. Natural ventilation for infection control in health-care settings.
Photo credit https://pixabay.com/en/view-window-outlook-nature-sky-1602552/.
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