Hospital Privacy Curtains May Be Source of Pathogens, Study Finds

   According to data presented at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Chicago, while hospital privacy curtains are frequently and rapidly contaminated with bacteria, it’s not clear what role the curtains play in disease transmission.

Michael Ohl, MD, assistant professor of medicine, and his colleagues at University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, USA, reported the results of their longitudinal study of two intensive care units and a medical ward. They reported that the vast majority (92%) of curtains became contaminated within one week. Even though the curtains were changed throughout the three week study, 95% were contaminated on at least one occasion.

   Over a three week period, swab cultures (N=180) were obtained twice weekly from the leading edges of 43 separate privacy curtains in 30 rooms (8 medical ICU, 7 surgical ICU, and 15 medical ward). Curtains were marked to determine when they were changed. Dr. Ohl and colleagues used standard microbiologic methods, including broth enrichment, in their investigation. To distinguish the persistence of pathogens on curtains from recontamination, all VRE and MRSA were typed using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis.

   They found contamination with Staphylococcus aureus, methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), enterococcus, vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE), or aerobic gram-negative rods. MRSA was isolated from 21% and VRE from 42% of privacy curtains. Eight privacy curtains were contaminated with VRE at more than one time point, 3 with persistence of a single isolate type,  and 5 with different types over time, suggesting recontamination. Overall, 119 of 180 (66%) cultures were positive for either S. aureus (26%), enterococcus (44%), or gram-negatives (22%).

   As noted, the investigators reported that the vast majority (92%) of curtains became contaminated within one week. Even though the curtains were changed throughout the three-week study, 95% were found to have been contaminated on at least one occasion.

According to the investigators,  hospital privacy curtains are frequently and rapidly contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. Further study is needed to detail the role of privacy curtains in pathogen transmission, and to suggest interventions to reduce curtain contamination.