Pontius Pilate Probably Did It Wrong, Too

Scientists have determined that we’ve all been washing our hands the wrong way.  They say the simple soap up, vigorously rub until lather forms, then rinse method that we’ve been using isn’t very effective at killing the bacteria that collects on our hands.

handwashing-banner1A study conducted by a university in Scotland concluded that the common three-step method only reduced the “average bacterial count”on hands from “3.08 colony-forming units per milliliter to 2.88.”  The study advocates, instead, for a six-step method that involves the initial soap-up step followed by scrubbing the backs of hands, the backs of fingers, between fingers, then rotational rubbing of your thumbs, and finally the fingers on your opposite hand.  If it sounds complicated, it is:  the study confesses that only 65 percent of people who were given an instruction sheet did it correctly.  The average time to correctly complete the six-step procedure, incidentally, was 42.5 seconds.

But here’s the rub:  after doing the six-step hand fandango, there were still an average of 2.58 colony-forming units of bacteria per milliliter on the study participants’ hands.  In other words, even after you’ve vigorously scrubbed away and performed the “rotational rubbing of your thumbs” for a full 42.5 seconds, more than half of those bacteria that had been on your hands are still there, ready to form a “colony.”

And that’s not even the worst part.  Standing in front of the sink in a public restroom washing your hands for 42.5 seconds is the functional equivalent of an eternity.  Nobody spends that much time washing their hands — not even Howard Hughes.  If you stood at a sink in a public bathroom for 42.5 seconds aggressively scouring your hands in a lathery storm, any other person who happened to be in the bathroom at the same time would conclude that you are either trying to eliminate DNA evidence after committing murder or on the verge of being committed for raging hypochondria.

So I don’t think I’m going to be spending 42.5 seconds enduring the over-the-top fragrances of hand soaps and giving my thumbs a workout in order to marginally reduce, but not come close to eliminate altogether, the bacteria hanging out on my hands.  I’ll stick with the three-step method, get out of the bathroom within a reasonable time, and just let those hardy surviving bacteria go about their colony-forming business.

Beards And Bacteria

Beards seem to be a source of endless fascination for medical researchers and health care reporters.  Ever since Peter Griffin grew a beard that served as home to a nest of birds on Family Guy, their prevailing view seems to be that male facial hair must be host to countless forms of microbial life and teeming with potential disease-causing agents.

bird-beard-peterSome stories contend that the coarser nature of beard hair makes it more likely to trap food particles, note that stroking beards can cause a transfer of germs, and offer helpful observations like “If someone [is] eating dairy products it can get stuck in their beard and become a bit rancid.”  In another recent incident, a microbiologist took swabbings from beards, pronounced himself appalled by the results, and provoked stories with leads like this one on the USA Today website:  “Beard hygiene is important unless you want to have the equivalent of a dirty toilet seat growing out of your face, according to a microbiologist who swabbed a bunch of beards and was shocked by the results.”

Makes you want to cringe any time you’re in the vicinity of some stranger with a rancid sour milk-scented hairy toilet seat on this face, doesn’t it?

So, speaking as a guy who’s had a beard for the last 20 years, it was refreshing to see a new bit of research that counters the notion that beards are germ-ridden potential public health disasters waiting to spread plague and illness throughout the population.  A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that clean-shaven men are more than three times more likely to have a challenging form of infection-causing bacteria called MRSA (for methicillin-resistant staph aureus) on their cheeks than bearded guys, and also are more likely to have faces with staphylococcus aureus, which can cause skin and respiratory infections and food poisoning.

Why would this be true?  Researchers think that those two forms of bacteria might form colonies and breed in the microabrasions caused by men repeatedly scraping their faces with sharp objects (otherwise known as shaving).  And, even more intriguing, a separate analysis indicates that beards may be home to microbes that actually kill bacteria, which could lead to the development of new forms to antibiotics — which something that the world desperately needs because bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to the current array of antibiotics.

That’s right:  in the space of a single article, beards go from filthy petri dishes of lurking disease to the potential salvations of the human race!  I think I’ll celebrate by guzzling some dairy products and letting a few drops find a whiskery home.

Polio And “Superbugs”

In Syria, more than a dozen children have fallen prey to the crippling effects of polio.

“Polio?”, you say.  “That terrible affliction that paralyzed thousands of American children each year?  But polio was eradicated by the development of the Salk vaccine.”  Yes, but a vaccine can only work if the shot is delivered.  In war-torn Syria, some children aren’t receiving their vaccinations — and the polio virus is still out there, lurking and ready to spread its infection that, for some unlucky few, will produce paralysis.

The story of the Syrian children is a reminder of the thin line of defense that protects humans from illness caused by bacteria, microbe, and virus.  It’s a timely reminder, too, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other world health organizations are increasingly concerned about the development of “superbugs” — bacteria that have developed resistance to treatment because antibiotics are being overused.  The CDC estimates that more than 2 million Americans get antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and at least 23,000 die because drugs no longer stop their infections from spreading.  The two most dangerous “superbugs” in America are CRE bacteria, which produce deadly, raging infections, and Clostridium difficile, which produces diarrhea that kills thousands each year.  The CDC’s European health counterpart is reporting on outbreaks of other antibiotic-resistant illnesses in some European countries.

This is one of those stories that don’t get much attention because it isn’t threatening to most of us — at least, not right now.  But the spread of “superbugs,” and the overuse of antibiotics that often kill “good” bacteria that are found in every human, are an enormously important public health issue.  We need to stop the overuse of antibiotics that have contributed to the development of drug-resistant bacteria and focus on developing new vaccines and forms of treatment to fight the superbugs.  Otherwise, one day we might wake up to find that the stout antibiotic line of defense that has protected humans from all manner of deadly diseases is simply gone.