At least three recently published scientific studies have highlighted once again, the presence of a cocktail of disease causing, drug-resistant pathogens on currency notes and warned of their potential to transmit a number of diseases in the community, including urinary and respiratory tract infections, septicaemia, skin infections, recurrent meningitis, toxic shock syndrome and a variety of gastro-intestinal diseases. In fact, the scientific journals have been publishing these alarming facts almost every year, but neither the health nor the food sector has taken cognizance of this serious public health issue.
A report published in the Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences in 2016, for example, says that 86.4% of the 120 currency notes tested at the department of microbiology, Tirunelveli Medical College, Tamil Nadu, were contaminated with disease causing pathogens such as Klebsiella Pneumoniae, E.Coli , Staphylococcus aureus. The currency notes were collected from a variety of sources including doctors, banks, local markets, butchers, students and housewives . I must mention that the notes collected from doctors were also infected!
Another study published in the July 2016 issue of the International Journal of Pharma and Bio Science too has expressed grave concern over both bacterial and fungal contamination of currency , on the basis of a study of 530 notes (1-3 years old) of all denominations and 300 coins of 5, 2 and 1 collected from Srikakulum and Visakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh .
Yet another article in the International Journal of Advanced Research in 2016 reveals that 58 per cent of bank notes carried disease causing pathogens. Hundred notes of Rs 100, 50, 20 and 10 denominations collected in Davanagere, Karnataka, were checked for the study.
Prior to this , a scrutiny of 96 paper currency of various denominations from Rs 5 to Rs 500 and 48 coins, conducted at the departments of microbiology and pulmonary medicine, King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, , showed that almost all the samples were contaminated with bacteria, fungus and parasites. Notes of Rs 5 and Rs 10 were most highly contaminated. (Indian Journal of Medicine and Public Health , July-Sept 2015) Another study published in the scientific journal Plos One in June 2015 identified 78 pathogens on currency notes of Rs 10, 20 and 100 denominations collected from various sources in Delhi. The study also identified 78 antibiotic resistant genes.
All these reports reaffirm what the earlier studies, conducted in different parts of the country for more than ten years have revealed- that currency notes are a source of infection and dangerous to health, more so because many of the pathogens on them are multi-drug resistant strains. But more importantly, these studies bring to light, the imperative need to ensure that hotels, hospitals, school and office canteens, restaurants, street food stalls, shops selling bakery products, mithai, and even those preparing food for mid-day meals and religious places, do not contaminate food with currency either at the time of preparation or at the time of sale or distribution. And this responsibility falls on the food regulator and the state food safety authorities.
Similarly, the Medical Council of India, the Indian Medical Association and the health ministry will have to educate the health sector on this issue and ensure that medical and paramedical staff take adequate measures to prevent the transmission of infections through currency notes. Consumers also need to be made aware of the importance of hand hygiene.
The Reserve Bank too has to do its bit to reduce the presence of pathogens on currency . While pumping new notes and withdrawing the old ones at shorter durations is one step, the other is to introduce polymer notes. Resorting to electronic payments and reducing the use of cash would also help.