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H1N1 Flu: Where Germs Are Hiding

With news reports about the H1N1 flu all over the place, you may not think about the old “stomach flu” right now. Did you know that there really is no such thing as the stomach flu? If you have diarrhea or vomiting, it is usually not from influenza virus, but rather from another bug that got you. Often these bugs get us from not properly handling our food or from unsanitary conditions in our kitchens. Don’t go blaming the restaurant so quickly because studies show our homes are a breeding ground for bacteria that make us sick, too!

Top places germs reside

  1. The kitchen sponge and/or dishcloth is the number one place for nasty bugs to hang out. Replace your sponge every few weeks, or put it through the dishwasher so the heat can kill off some of the bacteria.
  2. The bottom of the sink is also very high in bacterial count. Just think about the conditions that germs love: Warm, moist environments. Your sink, sponges, and dishtowels are often wet and bacteria love it!
  3. Keyboards, computer mouse, remote controls, doorknobs, etc. I am guilty of this too: You are working on your computer and then you reach for a snack. There is a ton of bacteria on surfaces all over your office and home. Wash your hands every time you go to eat something. The toilet actually has less bacteria than many commonly touched surfaces around your office and home.

Tips to prevent getting sick

  • WASH HANDS. I can’t emphasize this enough. Wash your hands before you go to prepare food or eat food. Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom. A good rule of thumb is to wash for at least 20 seconds using hot water and lots of soap. Use a hand sanitizer if you cannot always wash in a sink.
  • Wash all surfaces food will touch before and after you prepare food. Wipe the counter clean before you get the food out, and wash it off after as well.
  • Wash all produce well. Even if you don’t eat the outside of it (think watermelon, cantaloupe, oranges, etc) you still want to wash it. Once you cut into it or peel it, the outside is getting on the inside with the trail of the knife or your hands.
  • Always cook meats to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Use a food thermometer to be sure.
  • Do not keep perishable food out for more than 2 hours at room temperature. Get all food back into the fridge in 2 hours or less to minimize bacteria multiplying.
  • Keep your fridge at 40 degrees or less.

Check out this research from the USDA:

Best Ways To Clean Your Kitchen Sponge

Your microwave or dishwasher can make sponges safer to reuse in today’s kitchens.

Heating your used kitchen sponges in your microwave for one minute, or washing them in your dishwasher and leaving them there through a drying cycle, are the most effective household ways to inactivate harmful bacteria, yeasts and molds.

ARS food safety experts who specialize in research on foodborne pathogens, like E. coli O157:H7, looked at several simple, convenient and often-recommended ways of cleaning reusable kitchen sponges. Techniques included soaking sponges for three minutes in a 10-percent chlorine bleach solution, soaking in lemon juice or sterile water for one minute, heating in a microwave at full power for one minute, or washing in a dishwasher—including through a drying cycle.

At the outset of the experiment, they soaked all the sponges for 48 hours at room temperature in a slurry of ground beef and laboratory compounds which allow bacteria, yeasts and molds naturally present in the beef to grow on the sponges.

Microwaving and dishwashing each killed nearly 100 percent of the bacteria, with dishwashing being only slightly (0.0001 percent) less effective.

And, microwaving and dishwashing each killed nearly all yeasts and molds; less than 1 percent (only 0.00001 percent) survived.

This post, H1N1 Flu: Where Germs Are Hiding, was originally published on by Brian Westphal.

Physicians And The H1N1 Flu

Yesterday I visited the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and was taken inside the command center, where almost 100 staffers have been working around the clock to monitor and stem the current outbreak of flu.

I first spoke to Toby Crafton, the manager of the command center, who oversees the day-to-day operations. He and his team have been preparing for a possible pandemic of flu or another infectious illness for years. I also spoke to Michael Shaw, PhD, who heads up the virology labs that are studying the H1N1 virus causing the current outbreak. He’s spent a career learning the laboratory techniques that are so urgently needed right now. The third person I spoke to was Dr. Richard Besser, Acting Director of the CDC, who has been working at the agency for 13 years and is an extensively published expert in infectious diseases.

I mentioned that last week I had received an email notification from the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH) about how I should be managing my patients with flu-like symptoms. The advice was actually not intuitively obvious to me. For example, the Department of Health said that for patients with mild illness, treatment with anti-viral meds like Tamiflu and Relenza was only recommended for patients who also had underlying conditions that increased their risk for complications due to influenza. Dr. Besser pointed out that it was especially important right now for physicians to stay up to date with the recommendations being made by public health officials. Doctors can contact their local department of health and sign up for the same type of email notification that I received.

This brings us to the main point of today’s blog post. Many of us – patients and physicians alike – have been thinking about the influenza virus for about a week. Public health officials like the teams at the CDC and the NYCDOH have been thinking about it for years. Physicians, me included, are used to practicing medicine based on “clinical judgment.” We understand that medicine is an art and not a science, that there are many different ways to approach a problem, that there’s often no clear “right” or “wrong.” We are also used to doing things “our way”, whatever that way is. But this is not a time for doing things “our way” if it’s at significant odds with strong recommendations being made by public health officials. There are recommendations that may seem logical – like prescribing medication for somebody with mild flu symptoms “just in case” that nevertheless go against the judgment of people who have trained for years to think about how to deal with an epidemic.

What if you’re a physician who strongly disagrees with a suggestion of public officials? Then challenge that recommendation publicly. Bring the discussion to light; maybe you’re right. While this is no time to go rogue, doctors have an obligation to think carefully and independently and to challenge recommendations that seem illogical. But don’t silently do things your own way.

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