Can our computers be infected with bacteria?

Multi-user computers contain more bacteria than single-user computers. Image: Shutterstock/sixninepixels

You should always wash before you type.

When you start typing on a keyboard that has been used by others, you may be tapping down on a host of bacteria. Researchers from Swinburne University of Technology found that 10 computers in multiple-user facilities were infected with coliforms, a bacterial indicator of the sanitary quality of food and water.

They were also infected with staphylococci, a common cause of food poisoning. The presence of these bacteria could lead to skin infections and gastroenteritis.

But the good news is that cleaning your hand and keyboards on a regular basis can reduce these health risks. The researchers, led by Associate Professor Enzo Palombo, have proven that using hand sanitisers and ethanol wipes can reduce the number of bacteria on shared keyboards in potential hot spots such as computer labs and internet cafes.

“People should be aware that bacteria and other potentially hazardous microbes can be present on shared computer terminals and may be transmitted to any users, ” says Palombo, author of the study published in the American Journal of Infection Control. “While there is no need to be paranoid, paying attention to regular hand hygiene practices, such as washing hands with soap and warm water, will minimise the risk of transmission of these microbes.”

The 10 computers that the researchers examined were located in multiple-user facilities at Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus. The keyboard and mouse of each computer were sampled every Friday over a period of five weeks.

All of these were initially found to be infected with coliforms and staphylococci, but after two weeks the researchers introduced a commercial ethanol-based hand sanitiser into the computer lab and asked users to sanitise their hands before using a terminal. Half of the computers were also cleaned with antibacterial wipes.

Over the next two weeks, coliforms were not detected on any of the computers, suggesting that hand sanitation alone was an effective measure. And while staphylococci were still present, their numbers were reduced.

While implementing these cleaning regimes would be an extra cost for facilities, making hand sanitisers would be a minimal cost, according to Palombo. “If the computer facilities are located in the workplace, rather than public access, reducing illnesses among employers would have a financially beneficial outcome.”


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