Multi-drug resistant superbugs, which can cause dangerous infections, are becoming increasingly resistant to alcohol-based hand sanitizers and disinfectants, according to a recent study.

The researchers, co-led by Tim Stinear, Ph.D., a microbiologist at Australia’s Doherty Institute, found specific genetic changes over 20 years in vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, or VRE, and described the bugs as a “new wave of superbugs.” The team was also able to track and show its growing resistance. Results were published last week in Science Translational Medicine.

VRE bugs, which can cause urinary tract, wound and bloodstream infections, can be difficult to treat, mainly because they are resistant to several classes of antibiotics.

Healthcare entities, including nursing homes, often use hand rubs and washes that contain alcohol in efforts to defeat superbugs such as VRE and MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Stinear said in Australia alone, use of the alcohol-based hand hygiene has increased tenfold over the past 20 years.

“So we are using a lot and the environment is changing,” he said.

While worth further study, the findings should not prompt dramatic changes in the use of alcohol-based disinfectants,  said Paul Johnson, Ph.D., FRACP, a professor of infectious diseases at Austin Health in Australia who co-led the study.

“Alcohol-based hand rubs are international pillars of hospital infection control and remain highly effective in reducing transmission of other hospital superbugs, particularly MRSA,” he said.

Stinear added that health authorities should try higher-alcohol concentrate products and renew efforts to ensure hospitals are deep cleaned and patients found to be carrying VRE infections are isolated.