Nothing is more frightening that the realisation that modern medicine has not defeated infection. Doctors were convinced they had that one licked; indeed, antibiotics have been medicine's one real success story. But with increasing outbreaks of MRSA and other 'superbugs' in hospitals, we are forced to admit that the bugs have returned, and we have nothing in our conventional arsenal to vanquish them.
In 2003, aerobiological researchers at the University of Leeds wondered whether changing the air might affect hospital infection rates. They decided to study the effects of air ionisers on infections caused by Acinetobacter. Besides staphylococci (MRSA) and streptococci bugs, some 1100 cases of hospital-acquired infection every year are due to Acinetobacter - many of them fatal.
They chose the intensive care unit at St James's University Hospital in Leeds, which has suffered recurrent bouts of hospital-acquired infection. After measuring the levels of bacteria present in the ICU, the researchers switched on high-quality ionisers (supplied by Air Ion Technologies; www.airiontechnologies.com). During the six months of the study, Acinetobacter infections plummeted.
Southampton University and Southampton General Hospital have announced that they will begin trials looking at the effect of ionisation on MRSA and other superbugs.
This is not only an incredible medical discovery, but an advancement of our understanding of exactly what superbugs are.
Doctors tend to anthropomorphise viruses and bacteria. They imagine that, like an enemy mastering the art of disguise, bugs are conscious beings, able to outwit us by altering their molecular makeup. However, in the Leeds study, infection was effectively eliminated simply by changing the positive-to-negative ion ratio in the air.
Ions are electrical charges in the atmosphere - an atom with too many or too few electrons. An ion is formed when a molecule encounters enough energy to unleash an electron from it.
The atom that loses the electron becomes a positive ion, and the molecule to which the ejected electron attaches becomes a negative ion. Both positive and negative ions are equivalent to a tiny pulse of static electricity, and the air that we breathe is made up of billions of these tiny charges.
Good 'clean' air contains 1500-4000 ions per cubic centimetre, and the preferred ratio has slightly more negative than positive ions - 1.2:1. However, given our industrialised lives filled with electromagnetic charges from artificial sources, the optimal ratio is often disturbed, leaving all but the most robustly outdoorsy among us inhaling low levels of mostly positive ions. For most of us, living without much charge isn't particularly good for us.
For more than 25 years, the question of whether these miniscule charges in the air affected living things was a particular fascination of the late Professor Albert P. Krueger, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at the specially created Air Ion Laboratory within the Life Sciences department of the University of California. Krueger's work showed that both positive and negative ions can have a profound effect on the health of living things (Science, 1976; 193: 1209-13). Indeed, it was Krueger who first showed that high levels of either, for instance, are lethal to bacteria (Int J Biometeorol, 1975; 19: 65-71).
As the St James's study demonstrates, bacteria are energetic entities that take hold when our energetic environment is out of kilter. It is one more piece of evidence that the key to good health may be mostly about frequencies - something we may be able to pull out of thin air.