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Roll Out the Microbial Red Carpet

The ‘who’s-who’ of film gathered yesterday for the 82nd annual Oscar Awards, the place to be for Hollywood’s A-list. As the post-Oscar hubris was settling, my attention was drawn to a nearly-year-old study from the East African Medical Journal that reminded me of a different kind of social gathering happening right under our noses, but beyond the resolution of our watchful eyes.

It’s familiar refrain that “microbes are everywhere”, but what astounded me was the kinds of microbes that are everywhere. Take this study from the East Afr. Med. J. [PMID 20084997] (a Journal, I confess, is not on my regular radar) that looked at the amount and variety of bacteria and fungi on coins circulating in the general population. Coins sampled from a variety of sources, including butcher shops, supermarkets, taxi drivers, school children and even shoe shiners, contained the microbial equivalent of Hollywood’s charmed. The bacterial interlopers were Escherichia coli, Klebsiella, Serratia, Enterobacter, Salmonella, Acinetobacter, Enterococci, Staphylococcus and Bacillus cereus mingling with some of the most pathogenic fungi known to humans, including PenicilliumAspergillus niger, Fusarium, Rhizopus, AltenariaCandida and Cryptococcus. By all accounts, that’s a microscopic junket! Once the numbers were crunched, the bacterial content on coins averaged 2,000 to 25,000 viable bacteria, depending on the source – the worst being from the friendly neighborhood butcher.

Now consider this: with a bug like E. coli O157:H7 with a human infectious dose of about 50 organisms, a single coin could carry enough pestilence to infect a whopping 500 people! O157:H7 survives for 11 days on an American quarter – in that time, how many different people do you think handle a quarter you used to pay for your coffee this morning? To this father of a 2-year old daughter who still taste-tests coinage (curse you, chocolate coins), these numbers obviously left me aghast.

So the next time you’re buying your frenched lamb, tell ‘em to keep the change.