The African Remedy that is Making a Comeback in US Hospitals: Copper

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HOUSTON, Texas, U.S.A – The first recorded medical use of copper is found in the Smith Papyrus (named after the dealer who bought it in 1862), which is the oldest book known to man. The Papyrus is an ancient African medical text – a surgical treatise – on trauma. It documents 48 cases of injuries, fractures, wounds, dislocations and tumors, written in ancient Egypt between 2600 and 2200 B.C., and which records the use of copper to sterilize chest wounds and to sterilize drinking water.

Other early reports of copper’s medicinal uses are found in the Ebers Papyrus, written around 1500 B.C. The Ebers Papyrus documents medicine practiced in ancient Egypt and in other African cultures, such as Nubia, that flourished many centuries earlier.

Thousands of years later, the ancient therapeutic is being embraced by some hospitals because of its ability to kill bacteria and other microbes on contact, which can help reduce the record numbers of deadly infections in US hospitals.

Many medical experts in Africa and the US have concluded that current methods for reducing hospital-acquired infections, such as hand washing, are not enough, because of negligence and some pathogens survive for long periods on surfaces. That’s why hospitals are experimenting with other ways to destroy them, including using ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide vapor to target germs in nooks and crannies not easily reached by cleaning crews.

But those measures require actions by human beings — which is not the case with copper.

At least some 20 hospitals across the United States have installed, or are considering installing, copper components on “high-touch” surfaces easily contaminated with microbes — faucet handles on sinks, cabinet pulls, toilet levers, call buttons and IV poles.

Copper kills all kinds of microbes: bacteria, viruses, and yeasts. Ancient Africans didn’t perhaps make up the definition of microscopes—that was an 18th Century European invention—so they probably couldn’t see the bugs, but they knew how it worked.

The Greeks then learned medicine from the ancient Africans; the Romans learned from the Greeks and so on until modern medicine appeared in western Europe. Copper was prescribed for a variety of conditions, and for general hygiene. Also, recent research shows that the Aztecs actually had contact with West Africa and learned about the use of copper for medicinal purposes.

In the Smith Papyrus, copper compounds were recommended for headaches, “trembling of the limbs” (perhaps referring to epilepsy), burn wounds, itching and certain growths in the neck, some of which were probably boils.

For many hospitals in West Africa and the United States, the death of Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan last year at a Dallas hospital heightened concerns — two nurses caring for him caught the virus because of poor infection control. And even before that, public health officials had identified nearly two dozen dangerous pathogens in the US — many of them resistant to virtually all antibiotics — whose spread in health facilities and elsewhere could result in potentially catastrophic consequences.

They include Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or simply MRSA, a potentially deadly infection that is increasing in community settings; Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, or vancomycin-resistant enterococci, or VRE for short, which can cause a variety of infections; the deadly E. coli 0157 strain; and Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, which causes life-threatening diarrhea and sends 250,000 people in the US and 320,000 people in West Africa to the hospital every year.

On any given day, about 1 in 25 patients in acute-care hospitals has at least one health-care-associated infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US. Pneumonia and surgical-site infections are among the most common. In 2011, about 75,000 patients with health-care-associated infections died in the hospital.

Hospital officials aren’t the only ones interested in copper. The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the state of Georgia, USA, installed drinking fountains retrofitted with antimicrobial copper surfaces. In Colorado Springs, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s flagship training center uses custom dumbbells with antimicrobial copper grips.

Cost remains the big issue. Adding copper surfaces is about 15 to 20 percent more expensive than using stainless steel. But the long-term benefits are worth it.

A typical West African hospital room contains about $3,000 of goods. While a typical U.S. hospital room contains about $100,000 of goods and equipment, experts say. The average cost to outfit a hospital room with antimicrobial copper items is about $800 in West Africa and $5,000 in the US.

But one infection in the US adds $43,000 in patient costs while in West Africa, it adds about $14,000, according to government data.

However, in the US, under the Affordable Care Act, hospitals with higher infection rates and other patient injuries face decreases in their Medicare reimbursements. This is a huge incentive to inspire hospitals to install copper surfaces.

In addition, copper and its complexes have been known in Africa to have ulcer and wound-healing activities; anticonvulsant activities; anticancer activities; anticarcinogenic activity; radiation protection and radiation recovery activities; and heart disease prevention activities.

African governments and hospitals will benefit a great deal in heeding to the calls of traditional African medicine. Ways must be sought to incentivize hospitals to install copper surfaces at the least.

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My name is Narmer Amenuti (Dances With Lions). I am first a Cultural Theorist and second an Educationalist. Both of which require that I remain an Investigative Historian. All of which lead me to my preferred profession: a Culture Critic, from the Sankoré School (of Critical Theory). I am East African by birth; South African by training; West African by choice - all of which make me, African by nature. I am also a student of Ancient African Rhythms and a passionate dilettante of Science. ~ Success Corrupts; Usefulness Exalts! ~ Narmer!

4 COMMENTS

  1. This makes so much sense! I am thoroughly overwhelmed by the extent of ancient African Research. Before, I had acquainted myself with the Smith Papyrus, but, my understanding of the medical terminology was 0.1 percent. One day instead of the chief medical officers at Korle Bu and Komfo Anokye stealing government hospital equipment for their own private clinic use, they can settle down and do much needed historical restoration of African Medicine. That copper and its complexes were used in Kemet and Nubia for many medical solutions but we choose to ignore it now is infantile. Hopefully, we can also keep the copper for ourselves and not dash it away. Copper prices are down 12 percent so far in 2015, at about $2.60 per pound, and a number of analysts and market watchers are calling for the market to stay in oversupply for the next two to three years at least.

    However, after that, the situation is expected to reverse, with incentive prices for new production set as high as $7,073 per tonne. African countries with huge deposits of copper are not keeping their wealth. None of the top ten companies, including the NOTORIOUS Glencore Company, which makes billions out of Angola while still poisoning water supplies and remitting next to nothing to poor Angolans, is African. This has to stop. But then again, it takes a man to stop another man. Doesn’t it? So, hopefully, African men will wake up and do what they need to do instead of sitting around for women to cook for them and wash after them. Because, currently all the fufu and nantsuinam are all cramps from the white man’s table – they are nothing in comparison to the billions that white men make in extracting African resources while African men sit under their coconut trees telling jokes. But then again, I digress. The import of my comment should be clear however, that it’s time to seize this moment in our lives. I just hope African men can stop others from raping our mother continent before I die! I just hope so.

    • you are dead on balls right! Excuse my language, for I hope you’ve seen ‘My Cousin Vinny’. Not that it matters if you haven’t. As an African man, born and bred in the village of my ancestors, I find it not only nauseating, but callous, our attitudes towards our fellow African men. There is a reason why we are no longer the leaders and thinkers of the world. We lost, or should I say, we sold our souls to the two devils that are: One, the Judeo-Christian tradition which sought to make us feel inferior. And two the Islamic tradition which only seeks to make a mockery of life and African culture. Until we can, as African men revive our brotherhood through our cultural belief systems – call it voodoo, juju, or what you will – that our ancestors kept for their very existence, we cannot in any rendition of foreign religions mimic the fortitude of the African courage and spirituality. I agree, we have to move our balls away from the fufu table and place them rightly on the BIG TABLE of world commerce. That is where we should take our bite! That is where we control our destiny as men, as African men, and even more important, as men whose ancestors once ruled this world for thousands, if not millions, of years. Of course, one way to do that is for us to learn to keep and protect our resources standing firm on our customs and traditions as we deem fit in the twenty-first century. In short, I feel our manhood has been robbed, or should I say we gave it away in our copious love fro Christ, whoever he is, and our unrelenting stupidity with Islamic traditions, both of which are in contradistinction with African Customs, Mores and Taboos. We can regain our manhood. We will regain our manhood. Or we shall forever die!

      • You are amusing. And please forgive me too, but my God, you are Dead On Balls right. I just hope there are no children reading this. But heck, let’s embrace reality for once. I agree, this thing you call Christianity and Islam, I have observed coincide with periods in which African states descended into oblivion. It is a masterful indictment of foreign religions and their impact on African men. But, my God, have you seen Ghanaian men lately? On Sunday morning? It is an feminist-fest! Cowardly jumping, clapping and worst of all, crying in Church! My great aunt would have cut off her own head if she saw her husband ever cry. It’s nauseating, I absolutely concur!

  2. I am sure there are ways to do it. There are ways for us to install copper surfaces in all hospitals in Africa at a fraction of the costs faced by health facilities abroad.

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