Disinfecting keyboards

Fomites are inanimate objects that act as modes of transmission for infectious agents. You know. The doorknob or airplane armrest handled by someone who coughs on his hand or blows her nose. We know that some agents, like influenza viral particles, can remain viable (i.e., retain their ability to replicate in a host cell) for days or weeks. This doesn't automatically mean that fomites are an important mode of transmission, however. There is evidence those same viral particles lose their ability to replicate after only a few minutes on your hand. The apparent paradox is probably related to the fact that your hand is a biological environment, with many generic defense mechanisms. Door knobs are friendlier.

Still, people worry about fomites and if you are reading this it is more than likely you are using a computer keyboard. If you are the only one who uses the keyboard you may not care, but keyboards often have multiple users. This is especially true in hospitals, where keyboards are used to enter clinical data around the clock -- many staff over several shifts. Now an enterprising company has come to the aid of the OCDC hygiene paranoic hospital infection control liability freak with its Mediagenic infection control keyboard. From the manufacturer's product page (h/t Medgadget):

  • Sanitize in Seconds: flat keyboard design quickly wipes clean with hospital-grade disinfectants.
  • High-Speed Data Entry: full-size keyboard enables healthcare professionals to touch-type with conventional keyboard-like performance.
  • Disinfection without Disconnection: single disable key allows connectivity while keyboard is cleaned.
  • Audio and Visual Alerts indicator will flash and alert will sound at user-defined intervals to help monitor and promote good infection-control practices. Cleaning the keyboard turns off the indicators.
  • Backlit Keys: keyboard is usable in low-light environments to accommodate data-input accuracy and reduce patient disturbance.

The product page has a helpful link to an article in the journal, Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. From the abstract I learned that the auithors were able to recover culturable bacterial pathogens from study keyboards (the number of keyboards isn't given and I don't have access to this specialized journal):

Potential pathogens cultured from more than 50% of the computers included coagulaseânegative staphylococci (100% of keyboards), diphtheroids (80%), Micrococcus species (72%), and Bacillus species (64%). Other pathogens cultured included ORSA (4% of keyboards), OSSA (4%), vancomycinâsusceptible Enterococcus species (12%), and nonfermentative gramânegative rods (36%). Rutala et al., "Bacterial Contamination of Keyboards: Efficacy and Functional Impact of Disinfectants," Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2006;27:372-377; abstr)

This isn't exactly news. We blogged about it a couple of years go, after a Swedish computer mag wrote a story that your keyboard was dirtier than your toilet. The authors of this article tested 6 different disinfectants (1 each containing chlorine, alcohol, or phenol and 3 containing quaternary ammonium) on keyboards festooned with 3 test organisms (oxacillinâresistant Staphylococcus aureus [ORSA], Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and vancomycinâresistant Enterococcus species). All disinfectants removed 95% of the test organisms without damage to the keyboard, cosmetic or functional, after more than 300 disinfection cycles.

So if that's the case, why do we need a special keyboard? I suppose the feature that inactivates the keyboard if it isn't cleaned is some value for compliance, but that feature is available on the more expensive model (the Compliance Keyboard). Rather than buy new keyboards, I would think some high school student could write a quick freeware app for this.

But that would be too simple. And too cheap.

More like this

keyboards festooned with 3 test organisms (oxacillinâresistant Staphylococcus aureus [ORSA], Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and vancomycinâresistant Enterococcus species)


Perhaps I'm missing something obvious, wouldn't be the first time, but there are silicone keyboards that are completely immersible. The need to deactivate the keyboard, seems to me, would be incorporated if the keyboard was USB based. I used to have a regular issue with my keyboard becoming disconnected and all I ever did was plug it back in.

Lay in a short supply of appropriately waterproof keyboards and you could conceivably just change out clean for dirty without turning off the computer at all. The dirty could then be decontaminated as need be. If the USB plug was protected the keyboard could travel through a commercial cleaning unit, possibly a dozen at a time, and then finish by being flashed in an autoclave and , if need be, wrapped to maintain sterility.

How far you go with this would depends on how clean, or sterile, they need to be.

Art: It sounds like you don't even have to do that much. Just wipe it with a mild disinfectant or soap and water (lightly) once a day. My daughter (who is a social worker in a hospital) tells me she does it periodically (usually when she hears there's norovirus around; I'm not sure it is anything but magical thinking for her, but it makes her feel better).

The primary problem with conventional keyboards is that the switch contacts and circuit board are not designed for immersion in liquids, and a good splash of disinfectant could cause one or more keys to cease to function. The secondary problem is that particulate matter such as dust and the crumbs from snacks, can get between keys and down into the area below, where it becomes a potential growth medium for bacteria, or can absorb liquids and then cause damage to the circuit board.

The picture of the new keyboard appears to show that they keys are under a permanent "keyboard condom." That would prevent damage from liquids, and prevent particles from dropping between the keys. Those are useful benefits. Having a little blinking light to remind you to clean the keyboard is nice in a busy environment.

One could achieve similar results by wrapping conventional keyboards in a layer of plastic wrap, but getting it quite right would end up taking more time than just buying a keyboard that's designed for the purpose.

Now let's see someone do something about surfaces in public bathrooms...

...just one more thing, they seem to have missed the point somewhat. Just because something has a "full keyboard layout" doesn't mean you can touch type on it. Now I'm no expert, although I have had the misfortune of trying to type on one of these monsters, it's actually the keys that allow you to touch type. As the keys on this thing are flat how are you supposed to touch type on them???? You can't feel them under your fingers and they have a horrible clicky action!

By Dr C. Sense (not verified) on 13 Apr 2009 #permalink