Sunday, December 27, 2009

Germ Warfare

I have long been skeptical of people who seem to me to be "germophobic". You know the type - they pick up pencils with a tissue, lest someone else's cooties get on their skin, like a police detective at a murder scene on TV. They wash their hands a hundred times a day. They use hand sanitizer with abandon. They require that you wash your hands every time you touch their baby. I'm sure you know someone like this, or perhaps, you are someone like this. If you are, don't stop reading. I have new found respect for the germophobic.

Once, when we had a work Xmas party with co-workers, spouses and their kids (I worked in a start up; it was a cheap Xmas party in the large conference room), the CFO's wife put her third child, who was about a year old at the time, on the carpeted floor with some Cheerios in a plastic tupperware container. The container tipped, the oatie-Os spilled on the carpet, and the kid ate them off the rug, as small children do. His mother, seated in a chair nearby, simply shrugged and said, "By the third child, you are less concerned about what he is picking up off the floor and putting in his mouth. You realize that kids are built tough - somehow, they survive". That had always been my modis operandi, for the most part, unless my kid ate something with a reasonable potential to be poisonous.

I was one of six children, all close in age back in the 50s. My parents didn't have time to closely watch all of us, all of the time. Their parenting style was more of the "if it didn't kill you, it would make you stronger" philosophy. That was the philosophy I was raised with. With my younger brother, the third child in the family, everything went into his mouth, including a nickel, blue shoe polish, and a bite of soap while he was in the tub. Only the shoe polish ended up in a trip to the emergency room, and he is alive and well to this day.

Bird Flu, H1N1, gastroentestinal maladies picked up in other countries - none of these ever particularly bothered me. I never get an annual flu shot. I have always had a strong constitution, rarely get sick except for colds, and figured if I ever got some serious contagious illness, I would be able to beat it.

Enter the marvelous age of computer graphic animation, parking meters that take credit cards, cell phones that deliver your email, wireless laptops that connect you to the world wide web, and touch screens at your local supermarket checkout counter. Where there are electronic connections, viruses will follow and touchscreens are no exception.

Due to my witnessing a rather horrific incident in a pharmacy a few months ago, of which I will spare my readers the gory details, I discovered religion. Suffice it to say that after this elderly woman left the pharmacy counter, the pharmacy staff assiduously scrubbed the entire countertop, touch screen and writing stylus with copious amounts of Lysol, and I became a believer. Hand sanitizer now nestles in my fannypack. I used to wash my hands fairly often to lessen the probability of colds and sinus infections, but after being a witness, I scrub. Often. I now carry my own personal "stylus" of sorts to sign my name on touchscreens. (Its actually a pack of fancy but hefty wooden toothpicks from some fancy restaurant that my cousin gave to me.) When my "stylus" wouldn't work on one of the very last screens in the Do-It-Yourself grocery checkout line recently, the clerk came over and yelled at me "You need to use your FINGER, ma'am". Well, excuse me -- "I have a nasty cold and am trying to prevent others from catching it." Whereupon she used her own index finger to finish the transaction for me. Lucky her. To top all of this off, as I left the store, I found that the dispenser with disenfectant wipes by the exit door was EMPTY.

I am pretty sure I got this cold from my many visits to Kinko's to copy some recently discovered family photographs for my five siblings for Xmas - using, of course, a touch screen machine. I think I made about six trips to Kinkos. After the first three or four trips, I scrubbed my hands in Kinko's restroom after each visit. Then I became lackadaisical, or maybe I was in a hurry, and I bet that last trip or two, I forgot to wash. Old habits die hard.

Now, as I sit here with a nasty cold that left me miserable during the Xmas festivities, I think it should be a requirement, a LAW, for every establishment that offers touch screens to its customers to have hand sanitizer available right next to EVERY touch screen. And if the business runs out of hand sanitizer, customers should be able to report them, and a fine be levied against them. I say non-compliance should be against the law, with stiff penalities, for not taking this national health issue seriously.

Yellow fever was once a serious problem in this country, especially in the humid southern states. No one knew back then that it was transmitted by misquitoes that hitched a ride on slave ships from West Africa, so no one understood how to reduce the incidence of outbreaks. There were no vaccines for Yellow Fever back then and there still is no cure for the disease. The last major outbreak of Yellow Fever in the United States occurred a mere hundred years ago. Today there is a vaccine for Yellow Fever, if you live in or travel to the many places where Yellow Fever is still prevalent. Today we have misquito abatement programs to reduce misquito breeding grounds and screens on windows to prevent epidemics. Despite its scary name, only 15% (or less; the statistics are confusing) of those who develop Yellow Fever will succumb to the disease. It is an awful illness, which is probably why we pay more attention to Yellow Fever than to the ordinary flu virus, but the regular old influenza virus actually kills more people on an annual basis.

We spent millions of dollars to find a vaccine for Yellow Fever and to develop prevention programs for it. Why can we not spend a few dollars on hand sanitizer at the local checkout counter? Will it take a major epidemic of an H1N1 type flu to make us realize that touch screens are major virus transmitters? Or are we just too individualistic and non-chalant in this country to care? In the meantime, I suggest all of us "germaphobes" invest in plenty of purse-size bottles of hand sanitizer, possibly your own individual writing stylus and maybe some cheap disposable latex gloves for those cantankerous touchscreens.


  1. I feel like you do, I avoid germs any way that I have to, if it's rude, too bad.

    Get better soon!


  2. hmm... who do you know that makes everyone wash their hands before touching hte baby ? :)

  3. I'm kind of a germophobe. I just got back from a trip with my twin daughters. I brought anti-bacterial wipes and Purell with me. I wiped down the arm rests, the tray tables, and the seat belt clasps as we sat down in our seats. I'm sure some people were watching me and laughing, but I didn't care. I don't do that everywhere/all the time, but planes especially sleeve me out---when are they ever properly cleaned?!?!

    I'm over from Crazy Baby Mama's blog. I'm your newest follower!

  4. erin, i did the same thing when we flew to israel last may :)