Public areas including baby changing rooms, pedestrian crossings and hospital receptions are “reservoirs” for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, scientists say.
Researchers from the University of East London swabbed commonly touched surfaces in the east and west parts of the capital to compare levels of antibiotic-resistant staphylococci, a group of bacteria known to cause infections in humans.
They found “disturbing” levels of multi-drug-resistant bacteria on door handles, armrests and toilet seats in public areas such as London Underground stations and shopping centres, and public areas in two hospitals, such as receptions, public washrooms, corridors and lifts.
Cash and ticket machines, escalator rails and soap dispensers were also swabbed.
A total of 600 staphylococci isolates were recovered from general public settings and hospital public areas – 224 in east London and 376 in the west.
Of these, 281 (46.83%) showed resistance to two or more antibiotics, mainly to penicillin (80.42%), followed by fusidic acid (72.4%) and erythromycin (54.45%).
Dr Hermine Mkrtchyan, a senior lecturer in biomedical sciences at the University of East London, who led the research, said: “Our research highlights that general public areas, which are part of our everyday life, can be reservoirs for multi-drug-resistant bacteria.
“Increased levels of such bacteria in public areas provides further evidence that infection control measures, both in the hospitals and in public places, fail to limit the spread of such resistant bacteria and emphasises the importance of good hygiene in these environments.”
She added: “We know that the AMR in the healthcare settings is a result of human activities such as use/misuse of antibiotics, and high levels are expected.
“However, finding such high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the general public settings is a worrisome finding.
“Resistance genes and elements present in these bacteria can spread to human pathogens and result in the emergence of new clones.
“Although these bacteria generally are non-pathogenic, the finding of increased levels of antibiotic resistance in general public settings in the community and in hospitals is disturbing.”
The findings, published in the Scientific Reports journal, show that 96 of the isolates were resistant to at least four antibiotics.
A higher proportion of multi-drug-resistant bacteria was found in public areas within hospitals (49.5%) compared with non-hospital public settings (40.66%), and in samples collected from east London (56.7%) compared with the west (49.96%).
The authors say these findings could reflect increased antibiotic use within hospitals and greater population density in east London.