As we trudge through the day, our clothes keep us safe from the multitude of bacteria present out in the world. That’s typically why we have washing machines, to get the germs, gunk, and grime off of our clothes. However, a new study, based on a unique incident that occurred at a German hospital, reveals that washing machines may sometimes harbor certain drug-resistant bacteria that can affect people with increased susceptibility to illness.
The report followed the discovery of a virus at a hospital in Germany between April 2012 to May 2013 called Klebsiella oxytoca, a germ known for causing serious infections in intensive care units and nursing homes. In the case at hand, however, 13 newborn infants and 1 child were carriers of this drug-resistant germ.
The subject of the study arose when several newborn babies were continually tested positive for k. oxytoca. On the bright side, no children were infected by the pathogen, despite many traces of the bacteria being found on their clothing.
Nonetheless, the presence of this bacteria was still of much concern, as people with weakened immune systems would be particularly susceptible to the germ, which is known to cause wound infections, pneumonia, and even urinary tract infections. This is especially alarming in a hospital setting, where most patients already suffer from impaired immunity and so the spread of such bacteria could be extremely dangerous.
After the bacterium has been discovered, a new task arose to determine how exactly it had spread and reached the infants. The first road looked into was the possibility that either hospital workers or the mothers themselves had unknowingly spread the germ to the babies. However, a series of tests ruled out that possibility, as well as the possibility of the pathogen being spread by equipment like incubators.
The Actual Cause
The bacterium was finally traced back to one particular washing machine, of which the rubber door seal and the detergent compartment both tested positive for k. oxytoca. What makes this case especially unique is that the washing machine in question was not the usual industrial machine used by hospitals, but was an ordinary household washing machine.
Normally, hospitals are not permitted to use household washing machines. However, this machine was only used for washing the clothes of mothers and their newborn babies and was located outside the premises of the hospital.
Once the washing machine in question was no longer in use, there was no further spread of the bacterium to the infants or any other patients.
The Problem at Hand
The development of this report raised a general concern with respect to the use of household washing machines in health care facilities. For the average home, an ordinary washing machine, even with its tendency to retain certain bacteria, poses far less of a threat.
Most of the bacteria remaining in the washing machine are usually not particularly harmful, and normal hygiene practices, like washing your hands, can prevent the spread of any pathogens that may be leftover in the machine.
The report deals specifically with the use of washing machines in hospitals and health care settings. The senior author of the study, Dr. Martin Exner, suggests the use of high-temperature washing machines when caring for any person with a compromised immune system or open wounds.
While the study notes this requirement as a necessity in hospitals and other health facilities like nursing homes and hospices, it also noted the need to upgrade the current design for most household washing machines to prevent water from accumulation which is likely contributing to the growth of bacteria and increases the likelihood of contamination.