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.