First came hand sanitizer. Now, there's body sanitizer.

This week, St. Paul-based Ecolab introduced a preoperative antiseptic bathing kit that lets patients sterilize their bodies before undergoing the knife.

The kits, which contain a 4-ounce bottle of chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG) skin disinfectant, two wrapped washcloths and cleaning instructions, are expected to help hospitals cut down on the alarming number of surgery-related infections.

Hospitals are expected to sell the kits, which have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for less than $40. During Ecolab's rollout this week, hospitals are being instructed to have patients scrub the night before and on the morning of their surgeries.

Ecolab spokesman Mike Monahan said that health care associated infections, or HAIs, cost the health care industry $25 billion to $30 billion a year.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Infections are a serious problem in healthcare facilities. Every year, an estimated 2 million patients get a hospital-related infection and 90,000 die from their infection."

Monahan said the public has heard about a few tragedies involving patients that underwent routine surgeries but ultimately lost a foot, leg or even their life due to infection.

Last year, Ecolab's scientific advisory panel of doctors, operating-room nurses and infection control experts asked the company to help solve the problem.

The company says its body sanitization kits have been well received and expects them to become popular in hospitals across the county. Ecolab stock rose 27 cents Thursday to close at $45.34 a share.

Hospitals initially tried getting patients to use the sanitizing wash on their own. But that didn't work well, said Karen Martin, manager of infection control for Advocate Christ Medical Center in Chicago.

Patients didn't understand that they needed to apply the sanitizer evenly, all over their body, and to simply rinse. Many patients were scrubbing it off. And Martin said some applied it with "washcloths that had been in their tubs for a week."

Martin, a nurse and manager who also serves on the Ecolab advisory board, expects hospitals to snatch up the new kits, which come with trilingual instructions and illustrations.

"They just made it very easy for patients. "I viewed it at our professional ... meeting this past June and was so excited," she said. "I think it's going to surpass anything else that is out there."

Working in Ecolab's favor is that the sanitizing chemical CHG works better than betadine because each application makes the bacteria-killing agent stronger. After the pre-operative scrub and another application at the time of surgery, the chemical keeps killing bacteria for six days, Martin said.

CHG kills microorganisms on the skin such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) and other virulent bacteria.

Dave Keil, Ecolab segment manager for health care North America, won't give revenue projections. But he did say the company expects hundreds of hospital accounts "by the end of the year."

Monahan, the company spokesman, said the product won't be a blockbuster but predicted sales in the millions.

Martin noted that the CDC already recommends something like the kit. That, combined with Ecolab's existing hospital business (the company sells to nine out of 10 U.S. hospitals), has the potential to make the kits a winner, she said.

Ecolab, with $5.5 billion in 2007 revenue, typically markets to commercial and industrial outfits and is best known for its restaurant, hotel, food safety and hospital equipment disinfectants.

Four years ago Ecolab beefed up its health care division. Today, Ecolab's Endure hand sanitizers and foams are commonly used in health clinics. Its surgical instrument cleansers, surgeon hand scrubs and sanitizing lotions are also used nationwide. And last year it paid $247 million for Microtek Medical Holdings, which makes infection-barrier equipment drapes, patient drapes, fluid control products and cleaning systems for operating rooms.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725