Did you know that the Government of Alberta has an ‘infection prevention control strategy’ that was updated in 2015, and that one of the five strategies to help control the spread of infectious diseases is ‘public awareness and education’? It seems that the most important role people like you and I can play in controlling infections is to come to the table – and everywhere else where we roam during our daily activities – with clean hands.
The strategy advises Albertans to wash hands frequently, cover noses and mouths when sneezing and coughing, keep living and work environments ‘clean’, get immunized for preventable diseases, and stay home when sick. These are all things my mom taught me as soon as I could walk, talk and think. I believe that most pre-school children know these strategies before they are three years of age, and many hate immunizations and having to stay home away from their playmates when they have colds and childhood illnesses, like measles.
In this complex, changing society, isn’t there anything new we can do to control and prevent the spread of infectious diseases? Why the big fuss and push to educate Albertans about things we already know before we even know we know them? As it turns out, coming to the table with clean hands is just the tip of the gigantic iceberg that floats beneath the waters of infectious diseases that Albertans need to understand in this climate of change.
New infectious diseases are emerging that threaten the health of all human populations, and there are many antibiotic resistant organisms that have no known treatment. Our best scientists across the country and around the globe are coming together to develop new treatments to keep some of these emergent and adapting life forms in check. According to the Provincial webpage “Infection Control and Prevention,” (https://www.alberta.ca/infection-prevention-and-control.aspx) all of us need to focus primarily on prevention because new infections may not be easily controlled with known treatments, such as antibiotics.
It seems that the best thing we can all do regularly to prevent the spread of all infections is to clean our hands. In some health care facilities, seniors’ complexes, and restaurants around town and in the city, there are little signs in washrooms everywhere that demonstrate how we should be washing our hands. For something most of us do unconsciously, it seems like an arduous process that uses copious amounts of time, soap and water.
But, despite proper and frequent handwashing and paying attention to the five rules for preventing spread of infections – wash hands, keep things clean, cover up when sneezing and coughing, get immunized, and stay home when sick – the skin on our hands is always covered with bacteria and viral material. It is just a fact of being alive – we are all carriers. We may know where our own hands of been, but we cannot know the same about the hands of the fellow humans who opened doors ahead of us.
When Sheldon on Big Bang Theory washes his hands following the prescribed course of action and exits a restaurant washroom with his elbows, while we may laugh at his exaggerated antics, he is actually demonstrating that as soon as we grab the door handle to push or pull our way out of a bathroom, we have re-exposed ourselves to ‘germs’.
Bacteria are not always a bad thing, and we certainly cannot do without them if we hope to survive as a species. Our inner organs use bacteria to help us digest our food, for example. Most of us, however, cannot differentiate between good bacteria and bad bacteria, and certainly every person is bombarded with advertisements of chemical mixtures that claim to eliminate bacteria from surfaces throughout our living and working environments. When you think of it, some companies have become wealthy because humans have a fear of infections and want to control their spread. Where would Mr. Clean, Javex, and Lysol be without our collective fear of bacteria that was instilled in us at an early age?
There is irony in the fact that sometimes health care professionals, who wear masks and gloves and wash their hands frequently in health care facilities, still go to work when they have colds or otherwise feel unwell. There is irony in the fact that many of us are worried about being hospitalized for surgery or other treatments because we don’t want to get sick in the hospital. We are all human no matter our professions, and our public facilities are hotbeds of bacteria because we frequent them.
So what can be done? I think each of us have to take personal responsibility for our own health and well-being. If we can prevent infections through the time honoured mantra of coming to the table with clean hands and not living in environments that resemble botany experiments, we should do so, don’t you think?
I think we should immunize ourselves where possible with vaccines that have been proven to prevent infections that can be transferred to others. But, most important, I think we need to stay home if we are sick, sneezing and coughing with red runny eyes and fevers. Appointments and work can wait while we stay home, rest and get better.
The most important aspect of following the five rules for preventing the spread of infections is that we can prevent our families, co-workers and people we meet in public facilities from catching what we carry on our skin and what we breathe out into the world. After all, our moms and dads taught us those rules before we were even three and knew what we knew or didn’t know about the world.