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News list 18 October 2016

How dangerous bacteria moved from the toilet to the screens of our phones

Within an hour, a man “loses” about 1.5 million cells of the epidermis, and, along with them, nearly 15 million bacteria. Each time we touch millions of microbes settle on a new surface, continuously making them the largest population inhabiting our planet. Some of them are viruses hazardous to our health, fungi and parasites. According to a study conducted by Polish scientists from Bioavlee, we are exposed to dangerous pathogens every day. They are everywhere – in public transport, public spaces … and even on the screen of our smartphones. Are we sure we are doing everything to prevent the spread of pathogenic bacteria?

According to research conducted by Polish microbiologists from Bioavlee – a company working on an innovative, fully automated diagnostic device to identify bacteria – the presence of dangerous bacterial strains in our environment has long ceased to be just a marginal phenomenon. The experts have closely examined all the surfaces that we most often come in contact with during the day, such as toilets, public transport spaces or home computers. The swabs obtained from those were tested using technology combining traditional bacterial culture with laser diffraction and artificial intelligence. And what were the results of this research? Certainly surprising. The results have shown that, in addition to the commonly occurring pathogens, as many as three types of highly drug-resistant bacteria were found in the samples(!). Their presence confirms that we are entering the post-antibiotic era.

Dirty Hands Diseases

From an early age, we learn that adhering to the key principles of personal hygiene has a big impact on our health. It is hard to believe, but most people still forget about this simple task and thus contribute to the spread of dangerous germs, which are becoming increasingly resistant to treatment day by day.

A few years ago, the WHO has published a frightening report, according to which almost 70% of cases of epidemic occurrences of gastrointestinal infections were a result of the transmission of bacteria from the surface of contaminated hands. Although the most effective duo in fighting pathogenic agents is that of (commonly available!) water and soap, still more than half of diarrheal diseases and nearly 30 percent of respiratory tract infections are caused by pathogenic microorganisms that inhabit our hands.

The bacteria transmitted this way not only spread at lightning speed, but become resistant to most drugs. Why? The answer is simple: we definitely abuse antibiotics! They are very often prescribed by doctors, and some are even available without a prescription. At times antibiotics are even sprayed in orchards, on vegetables and in arable fields. The produce is then used to make feed intended for consumption by domesticated animals or in fish ponds. All this has meant that currently the percentage of drug-resistant bacteria is too high and the rate at which new strains come into being has long outstripped the rate at which effective pharmaceuticals could be introduced.

A smartphone more dangerous than a toilet?

As the results of the conducted research show, we are exposed to the presence of dangerous pathogens almost every moment of our lives. Pathogenic bacteria are present in most everyday objects. They do not pose a threat to a healthy person, but in the case of chronically ill people with reduced immunity, they may actually be the cause of serious infections.

Salmonella, staphylococci, and pathogenic Escherichia coli are just some of the pathogens that scientists have had contact with when testing tram handles or doorknobs. And while the presence of dangerous bacteria in public toilets or means of public transport might not come as a surprise, what certainly seems like one would be the fact that they also inhabit the screens of our phones or the keyboards of home computers.
Highly resistant bacteria can even be found on the screen of a smartphone. The swabs collected on the surfaces of those revealed the presence of methicillin-resistant staphylococcal strains (Staphylococcus aureus MRSA). Another drug resistant bacterium (Staphylococcus epidermidis MRSCN), was found both on a tram handle, on the handle of the market trolley, and … a doorknob at a private house – explains Dr. Eng. Damian Andrzejewski from Bioavlee.

The threat of infection is real, bacteria resistant to several groups of antibiotics such as the aforementioned Staphylococcus aureus, Enterobacteriaceae strains, ESBL-positive beta-lactamases producing the extended ESBL substrate spectrum or carbapenemases (MDR, KPC, NDM-1), vancomycin-resistant enterococci, carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii strains – can cause various dangerous infections, such as urinary tract infections, pneumonia, skin infections, diarrhea and even blood infections.

The threat of the 21st century

The results obtained in the study are very worrying. By examining just a few surfaces, the researchers have found three antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could pose a serious danger to people with reduced immunity. The widespread use of antibiotics in the past – often in the absence of indications for this type of treatment – is the direct cause of bacterial mutation and the beginning of the post-antibiotic era, in which even mild infections have the potential to become the cause of life-threatening complications. According to the WHO report, the problem of antibiotic resistance is very serious and one that may threaten the effectiveness of a number of achievements of modern medicine.

Can we prevent the spread of pathogenic bacteria and stall the development of the post-antibiotic era? Yes, but we have to approach the problem multi-directionally. On the one hand, each individual should take care of hygiene and frequent hand washing, on the other hand, scientists and producers should focus on eliminating the use of antibiotics in medicine and industry.
Dr Kamila Korzekwa, a microbiology expert cooperating with Bioavlee confirms – the inappropriate use of antibiotics may cause infection or colonization of patients with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), enterococcus (VRE) vancomycin-resistant and multi-resistant gram negative rods.

The veterinary and food industries uses too many antibiotics, one of the reasons for which is the fact that identification of bacteria is still a time-consuming and expensive process. It can, however, be helped. That is why we decided to build an innovative device that quickly, inexpensively and effectively allows to recognize bacterial strains. Thanks to its application, we can help stall the process of immunization of microorganisms to commonly used drugs – explains Dr. Eng. Damian Andrzejewski from Bioavlee, one of the creators of the device for quick and accurate recognition of bacteria with the use of a laser. Researchers are constantly working to provide a cheaper method for identifying microbes. And you? Have you washed your hands today?