HIRC studies pathogen behaviour

The spread of infectious diseases such as seasonal flu, tuberculosis and swine flu could be significantly reduced by rethinking the design and build of the built environment.

That is the view of researchers investigating how the micro-organisms that cause disease behave in buildings and associated infrastructure.

The team from the Healthy Infrastructure Research Centre (HIRC) at University College London (UCL) is studying the behaviour of pathogens in places such as hospitals and schools and drainage and sewage systems.

The group aims to identify characteristics in building and infrastructure design that encourage diseases to spread. It will then pinpoint changes that can be made to infrastructure, such as design, materials, and maintenance, to restrict pathogens’ ability to survive.

Ka man Lai, a UCL environmental health engineer leading the initiative, said: ‘It’s well known that the infrastructure we rely on has an impact on our health, but understanding in this area is very limited.

‘HIRC will therefore explore the role played by air conditioning, ventilation systems, drains, pipes, and the size and layout of rooms, for example, in the transmission of airborne diseases and diseases spread via surface contact.

‘My vision is that, within the next 10 years, we will completely transform infrastructure function, design and construction and so create a new disease-resistant environment fit for the 21st century. We hope that, within three years, HIRC will start generating insights and recommendations leading directly to healthier infrastructure.’

Infectious diseases, including seasonal flu, tuberculosis, hospital ‘superbugs’ and most recently swine flu, affect millions of people around the world annually.

Their spread can be affected by many factors, including temperature, humidity, the presence of surfaces where pathogens can linger and the availability of ‘pathways’ enabling them to move around freely.

As well as investigating how new infrastructure can restrict disease transmission, the HIRC team will investigate ways of making old infrastructure healthier. It will also evaluate the impact that steps such as improving ventilation and understanding the influence hand-washing facilities could have in stopping the spread of pathogens.

The researchers hope their work will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people infected with debilitating and sometimes potentially dangerous diseases. They anticipate that this will eventually lead to a reduced burden on healthcare resources and the number of working days lost to sickness.

HIRC has already started an initiative with the North East & North Central London Health Protection Unit to investigate the relationship between physical environment and tuberculosis transmission in an office. HIRC is also working with Great Ormond Street Hospital to improve some infection-control practices.

The five-year project ‘Infrastructure and 21st Century Infectious Diseases’ began in April 2009 and will receive EPSRC funding of just over £1m.