Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The germs around us

We'll undoubtedly be hearing much in the future about consumer products to stave off various infectious diseases. One of the more popular seems to be alcohol-based hand-gels. The theory is that viruses that cause flu, colds and stomach illnesses can easily be passed around by shaking hands with someone shedding the virus or touching inanimate objects they have touched.

Could be. Plausible. But also unproven, although there is some literature to support it. The latest entry was just published in the medical journal Pediatrics. It was carried out by Grace M. Lee and colleagues at Boston's Children's Hospital and financed, in part, by Reckitt-Benckiser, Inc., a maker of cleaning and disinfection products. The findings, as I have them from Reuters Health (I'm trying to get the paper itself and if it says something different I will post my interpretation here), suggest that use of these products by people with young children in daycare during a single cold season provided modest protection against cold transmission within the family. The transmission of "stomach bugs" was also somewhat decreased. I think of this study as a "data point" to be considered.

Recently the medical journal The Lancet had a Commentary accompanying a review of infectious disease transmission aboard commercial airliners. The authors (David Ozonoff and Lewis Pepper of Boston University School of Public Health) offered their counsel on how to protect yourself when strapped down in an aluminum tube next to strangers for hours at a time, breathing recirculated air:
Advice on what an individual can do remains generic: good personal hygiene to protect yourself (wash hands frequently, particularly before eating), cover nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and wash hands afterwards to protect others. Beyond that, might we suggest one of the many magic little rituals the public uses to allay their general anxiety when flying. When Niels Bohr was asked by a reporter if he was superstitious because he had a horseshoe over his laboratory bench, he said of course not. He was a scientist. But he understood it worked even if you did not believe in it. (The Lancet, March 12, 2005, p. 918).
As a scientist, I'm not sure I believe in the hand gels. But maybe they work anyway.