Popular hand sanitizers may be heading the way of antibiotics, according to a study published this week in Science Translational Medicine.
Bacteria gathered from two hospitals in Australia between 1997 and 2015 appeared to gradually get better at surviving the alcohol used in hand sanitizers, researchers found. The bacteria’s boost in booze tolerance seemed in step with the hospitals’ gradually increasing use of alcohol-based sanitizers within that same time period—an increase aimed at improving sanitation and thwarting the spread of those very bacteria. Yet the germ surveillance data as well as a series of experiments the researchers conducted in mice suggest that the effort might be backfiring and that the hooch hygiene may actually be encouraging the spread of drug-resistant pathogens.
The researchers, led by infectious disease expert Paul Johnson and microbiologist Timothy Stinear of the University of Melbourne, summarized the findings, writing:
We have proposed here that the significant positive relationship between time and increasing alcohol tolerance is a response of the bacteria to increased exposure to alcohols in disinfectant preparations and that the more tolerant strains are able to displace their less alcohol-tolerant predecessors.
A species called Enterococcus faecium is of particular concern as it has become a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections and often carries resistance to multiple antibiotics, including a last-line drug called vancomycin.
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