Why you should stop worrying about germs

Microbiologist Jason Tetro on how to tell the good germs from the bad ones, and the surprising places they're lingering at work.

Evade illness, health, washing hands

Hand washing isn’t the only way to ward off the flu (Photo Masterfile)

Jason Tetro, a.k.a. The Germ Guy, wants you to love germs as much as he does. The microbiologist has studied them for 25 years, and he’s on a mission to demystify the common fears about germs. His new book The Germ Code tells us how to dodge the germs that can hurt us — and which ones to stop worrying about. Read on for our Q&A with him (then tweet #handhygiene to join the conversation).

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become so interested in the world of germs?
A: It may seem odd, but it was the fact that I almost died at age four to an infection that began my vocation. I was always curious as to how something I couldn’t see could have such a horrible effect on me. As I grew into my teenage years, I wanted to learn more about the virus that infected me as well as all things microbial. I started my journey in a lab at 17 years old and for the last 25 years, I have been fascinated by the wonders of microbiology.

Q: What germs do you find people are the most ill-informed on?
A: I think history has revealed that the germs given the least amount of love have been the ones that we acquire through sex. So much of our society has changed as a result of sexually transmitted infections. From the Middle Ages to World War II, STIs have forced new laws and regulations, some of which are still around today. The saying “No glove, no love” was directly due to HIV. And now Michael Douglas’ recent (albeit false) revelations about his  battle with cancer may impact bedroom activities for some time to come.

Q: What is one germ/infection people really should be concerned about?
A: Influenza. This is the one germ I don’t believe we will ever be able to control. It evolves at breakneck speed, it spreads worldwide each year, it has caused a handful of pandemics and it can create new super strains that are incredibly lethal. Thankfully these strains, such as H5N1 and the newly discovered H7N9 haven’t been able to spread worldwide. But it may only be a matter of time before one of these killer viruses gets it right and starts to cause a worst case scenario.

Q: Can hand sanitizers make people more susceptible to infection because they get rid of too many germs?
A: Not at all. Hand sanitizers are simply a supplement to hand washing when water and soap are not available. They’ve been tested in the laboratory – some of them by me – and they have proven to be effective at keeping hands safe and not increasing susceptibility to more infection. There is a debate on whether living too clean can predispose us to infection but that has yet to be proven.

Q: Where do germs hide that people least expect them?
A: Germs are everywhere, so you can expect them to be in pretty much every nook and cranny. I’ve hunted down germs outside the lab and have found them to be lurking on almost every surface. Most of the time, these germs are not particularly harmful and might not lead to infection. However, if you are concerned, there is a general rule that can help. If the surface is touched on a regular basis by numerous people and not washed regularly, then it will be covered in germs. Think kiosks, bathroom handles, phones, public transportation and at work, those germy microwave handles.

Q: Do you think the sensationalism of outbreaks makes people more scared than they need to be about germs?
A: I think sensationalism is too strong a word. The media have a job to perform when it comes to outbreaks and other associated actions, such as recalls. Where I think it goes wrong is that it’s one-sided coverage. Depending on the nature of the pathogen, you may get some advice on how you can prevent infection, but not always. I would like to see more coverage on how this bug was given the opportunity to make you sick. Was it due to bad farming practices? Antibiotic misuse? Lack of proper hygiene in crowds? For every human outbreak, there is usually a human factor, whether we like it or not. I believe that if the how and why behind an outbreak were presented, then the reports would be more balanced.

Q: Why do we need germs to survive?
A: It may seem hard to believe but we have a life-long relationship with them. From the moment we are born, we are colonized with germs and soon, they outnumber our own cells by a factor of nine to one. We call this collection of microbes in and on the body the microbiome. These microbes help us to digest food, they can keep our skin healthy and in some cases free from insect bites, and even help our teeth stay strong. But most of all, they help us stay healthy on the inside. We are still learning all the ways germs are involved in our well-being, but we do know that they are involved in gut health as well as cardiovascular and even psychological health.

Q: How do you feel about the flu shot? Is it safe?
A: The flu shot is one of those hotly debated topics where both sides of the argument have some pretty valid points. While I would definitely say that the flu shot can help to reduce the chances of catching the flu, I believe it is a personal choice and should be made after consulting with a doctor or health professional. While the incidence of side effects are low, as we saw with the pandemic flu vaccine and the higher incidence of narcolepsy, they could be very problematic.

Q: What do you think of parents who opt out of immunizations for their children? Is this a step backward for us?
A: In contrast to the flu vaccine, others such as those against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, meningitis and chicken pox should be considered imperative for both individual and population-based prevention of illness. While this may be a strong stand, we’re seeing the consequences of opting out. We’re seeing rises in the number of measles cases in Canada as a result of a lack of proper vaccination. There are, however, possibilities for adverse effects and as such, consultations with a doctor or health professional should be done before taking even these vaccines.

Q: In Paul Pholeros’ Ted Talk, he shared how simple cleanliness reduced illness in Australia. What are a few simple steps we should take to reduce the spread of infectious germs and educate people to keep them more safe?
A: I believe that the first step is to recognize microbes as being in a relationship with humans. For far too long we were at war with them but it has clearly been the wrong approach. We need to find ways to love them — respect, appreciate and know the good from the bad — to better live with them.

We also need to realize that diversity breeds health. Of the millions of germs that exist, only about 1,450 can harm us. If we can find a way to fill our bodies and our environment with good germs, then we can keep the bad ones away and live healthier. Granted, we all will still get sick but the frequency would drop as would the severity and possibly the number of deaths.

Finally, I think we need to re-examine our lifestyle and return to one that fosters a good relationship with germs. For example, I’m all for a diet that comprises foods that are known to keep good gut bacteria balanced and happy. The diet is relatively easy to follow and has been shown to help reduce the chances for obesity, keep away diabetes and even maintain psychological health. It’s such an incredibly effective diet that it’s been used for millennia. While I like to call it the good-germs-friendly diet, most people tend to call it the Mediterranean diet.

Four simple and easy-to-perform commandments for optimal hygiene:
1. Wash hands with soap and water — preferably warm to hot — lathering for about 20 seconds, or enough time to say the alphabet twice.

2. Washing should be performed a minimum of eight to 12 times a day, and not just after using the toilet. Any time there is a change of location, such as from work to home, hand washing should be performed to gain a fresh start.

3. Hands should be washed after touching anything that is considered to be high touch, such as a cafeteria tray, a menu or even money.

4. If the availability of water for hand washing is sparse, then the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for 20 seconds will offer protection between washings.

Find out how probiotics (good bacteria) can help ward off the flu here.

What do you do to avoid germs? Tell us in the comment section below.

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