Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

Microbes on mobile phones an 'invisible biosecurity threat' to Expo 2020 Dubai

Hundreds of thousands of visitors carrying mobile phones harbouring millions of microbes will descend on Expo 2020 Dubai next year

Mobile phones present an invisible biosecurity threat as Dubai Expo 2020 approaches and the country prepares to welcome 17 million visitors for the event, experts heard at a conference on biosecurity.

A preliminary Australian study, done in partnership with Dubai Police, found more than 1,000 microbes on just 16 mobile phones, including 814 bacteria, 203 viruses, eight protozoa and 67 fungi.

“Now you are going to ask me the question, don’t we have a bio security issue here?” said Lotti Tajouri, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at Bond University in Australia, who led the study.

“We have a biosecurity issue. Next year we have the world expo, we are expecting million visitors and they’re coming with their mobile phones. Are we not afraid?”

Dr Tajouri was speaking at the UAE Biosecurity Conference in Dubai on Monday.

The study identified pathogens from 16 mobile phones owned by medical professionals at a Queensland hospital using DNA analysis. In its second phase, the study will be expanded to at least 40 mobiles.

Dubai Police plan to replicate the study at healthcare centres and hubs in Dubai to minimise biosecurity threats before and during Expo 2020, said Maj Dr Rashed Al Ghafri, chair of Dubai Police Scientist Council.

“We are looking at some relevant entities like Dubai airport as well to see how we can expand it to have a wide image of the variety of pathogens,” he said. “We’re trying to foresee what can happen in the future.”

Most organisms on phones are harmless but this small sample still had six of the 10 known superbugs - strains resistant to antibiotic drugs.

International studies support these findings. A 2012 study from the University of Arizona found mobiles had 10 times more bacteria than toilet seats, and our mobile phone addiction has only grown.

People check their smart phone an average of 47 times a day, according to a 2017 study by the phone multinational account and professional services firm Deloitte. For young people aged between 18 to 24, this number jumped to 86 times a day.

What’s more, the phone is the perfect environment for these organisms. It is a moist and warm breeding ground for microbes.

The study is one example of how authorities will prepare for biosecurity ahead of Expo 2020, said Dr Tajouri. “Just imagine those others platforms that are unnoticed. I just want you to think outside of the box.”

National biosecurity strategies must anticipate pathogens that do not yet exist, said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of communicable diseases department, at Health Authority Abu Dhabi.

“Most of our strategies are designed to deal with known diseases, diseases that have already a treatment,” said Dr Al Hosani. “But when it comes to emerging infections, it’s a changing risk.”

Dubai could take inspiration from Japan’s Narita Airport, which introduced toilet roll that sterilises mobile phones so passengers can wipe off their devices when they visit the bathroom.

There are other simple solutions.

For starters, keep your phone out of the bathroom. Two thirds of phones are covered in fecal matter, according to Dr Tajouri.

It might not be your own, either. With every flush of the toilet, tiny particles of toilet water, and everything in it, fly through the air.

Wiping your phone with a microfiber cloth removes many germs. Better still is to use a soft cloth dabbed with water and rubbing alcohol.

The best solution is the easiest: wash your hands.

Simple habits can go a long way to stop the transmission of illness, said Dr Al Hosani.

“Shaking hands can transmit a lot of infections. It’s important to start with basic things.”

Updated: October 29, 2019 10:59 AM

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