Researchers at University at Buffalo in New York found bacteria associated with strep throat and ear infections to survive outside the body for long periods on toys at a day care center. The team of Buffalo microbiologist Anders Hakansson and doctoral candidates Laura Marks and Ryan Reddinger published their findings today online in the journal Infection and Immunity (paid subscription required).
Hakansson and colleagues tested the conventional wisdom that common disease-causing bacteria cannot live long outside the human body on inanimate objects like dishes or toys. The team look specifically at two common types of bacteria: Streptococcus pneumoniae and Streptococcus pyogenes. S. pneumoniae is a leading cause of ear infections in children, and respiratory tract infections in children and older adults. The bacteria are often found in institutions, such as day care centers and hospitals, and in developing countries, where infections lead to pneumonia and sepsis, killing one million children every year.
S. pyogenes is also a common bacterium, believed to inhabit the respiratory tracts of 5 to 15 percent of individuals. While the bacterium is associated with dangerous infections, such as scarlet fever and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, it is most commonly found in pharyngitis, or strep throat. It is still considered a worldwide health concern because of its progressive and rapidly spreading infections when left untreated.
The Buffalo researchers tested for these two bacteria at a local day care center and found four of five stuffed toys testing positive for S. pneumonaie, while some cribs in the day care center were found to harbor S. pyogenes. The researchers conducted their tests in the morning, just prior to the center’s opening for the day, thus taking measurements of bacterial presence many hours after the last human contact.
Hakansson and colleagues believe the bacteria form into biofilms, which are collections of microbial cells held together in a intricate community. The study included lab tests of individual cells of both types that dry quickly on hands and plastic surfaces, but in biofilms survive and remain viable enough after a month to form bacterial colonies in test mice.
“Commonly handled objects that are contaminated with these biofilm bacteria,” says Hakansson in a university statement, “could act as reservoirs of bacteria for hours, weeks, or months, spreading potential infections to individuals who come in contact with them.” However, that hypothesis also needs to be tested to understand the circumstances under which these contacts lead to the spread of bacteria between individuals.
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