Tuberculosis (TB) is a major cause of ill health and death worldwide, with around one-third of the world's population infected with the bacterium that causes it (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). One person with active tuberculosis can go on to infect many others; the bacterium is passed in tiny liquid droplets that are produced when someone with active disease coughs, sneezes, spits, or speaks. The risk of tuberculosis being transmitted in hospital settings is particularly high, because people with tuberculosis are often in close contact with very many other people. Currently, most guidelines recommend that the risk of transmission be controlled in certain areas where TB is more likely by making sure that the air in rooms is changed with fresh air between six and 12 times an hour. Air changes can be achieved with simple measures such as opening windows and doors, or by installing mechanical equipment that forces air changes and also keeps the air pressure in an isolation room lower than that outside it. Such "negative pressure," mechanically ventilated systems are often used on tuberculosis wards to prevent air flowing from isolation rooms to other rooms outside, and so to prevent people on the tuberculosis ward from infecting others.
Why Was This Study Done?
In many parts of the world, hospitals do not have equipment even for simple air conditioning, let alone the special equipment needed for forcing high air changes in isolation rooms and wards. Instead they rely on opening windows and doors in order to reduce the transmission of TB, and this is called natural ventilation. However, it is not clear whether these sorts of measures are adequate for controlling TB transmission. It is important to find out what sorts of systems work best at controlling TB in the real world, so that hospitals and wards can be designed appropriately, within available resources.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
This study was based in Lima, Peru's capital city. The researchers studied a variety of rooms, including tuberculosis wards and respiratory isolation rooms, in the city's hospitals. Rooms which had only natural measures for encouraging airflow were compared with mechanically ventilated, negative pressure rooms, which were built much more recently. A comparison was also done between rooms in old hospitals that were naturally ventilated with rooms in newer hospitals that were also naturally ventilated. The researchers used a particular method to measure the number of air changes per hour within each room, and based on this they estimated the risk of a person with TB infecting others using a method called the Wells-Riley equation. The results showed that natural ventilation provided surprisingly high rates of air exchange, with an average of 28 air changes per hour. Hospitals over 50 years old, which generally had large windows and high ceilings, had the highest ventilation, with an average of 40 air changes per hour. This rate compared with 17 air changes per hour in naturally ventilated rooms in modern hospitals, which tended to have lower ceilings and smaller windows. The rooms with modern mechanical ventilation were supposed to have 12 air changes per hour but in reality this was not achieved, as the systems were not maintained properly. The Wells-Riley equation predicted that if an untreated person with tuberculosis was exposed to other people, within 24 hours this person would infect 39% of the people in the mechanically ventilated room, 33% of people in the naturally ventilated new hospital rooms, and only 11% of the people in the naturally ventilated old hospital rooms.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that natural methods of encouraging airflow (e.g., opening doors and windows) work well and in theory could reduce the likelihood of TB being carried from one person to another. Some aspects of the design of wards in old hospitals (such as large windows and high ceilings) are also likely to achieve better airflow and reduce the risk of infection. In poor countries, where mechanical ventilation systems might be too expensive to install and maintain properly, rooms that are designed to naturally achieve good airflow might be the best choice. Another advantage of natural ventilation is that it is not restricted by cost to just high-risk areas, and can therefore be used in many different parts of the hospital, including emergency departments, outpatient departments, and waiting rooms, and it is here that many infectious patients are to be found.