Medical gloves have come a long way since the 18th century, when they were made from the intestines of sheep -- and only partially covered the doctor's hand.
Today, they're carrying out high-tech germ warfare.
Although they look, feel and even smell like ordinary medical gloves, a new design that could be on the US market by the end of the year emits a gas that's safe to humans but deadly to everything from HIV to E. coli.
All the new glove needs to start working is a little ambient light.
"It kills every microorganism we've exposed to it," said Dr. Michael Barza, chief of medicine at Boston's Caritas Carney Hospital, and a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. He sits on the board of Bernard Technologies Inc., which developed the gloves.
In an age of infectious diseases such as AIDS and SARS, glove use has skyrocketed -- to the point where virtually nothing is done in a medical setting without them. Some health care workers go through dozens of pairs in a single day, while hospitals can go through millions a year.
Regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration as medical "devices," hospitals last year spent about $529 on gloves for every licensed bed, according to a survey by Hospital Materials Management, an industry newsletter. That was up 34 percent, compared with $396 for each bed in 2002. Many hospitals have abandoned powdered latex gloves because of allergies and are using higher-priced alternatives.
Studies have shown, perhaps surprisingly, that hospital staff today wash their hands about half as often as they should. Lack of proper hand-washing undoubtedly contributes to some of the 2 million infections acquired in US hospitals every year. Medical gloves, of course, have helped reduce the number of such infections.
"There are lots of holes in the system with respect to transmission [of germs] by hands," Barza said.