A new study has put an exclamation point on the idea of preparing for the winter cold-and-flu season. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that viruses can spread throughout a building within a few hours.
The researchers dabbed a harmless tracer virus on one or two surfaces, such as a door knob and a table top, in an office conference room and in a health care facility. Then they monitored how the virus spread. Within two to four hours, they found traces of the virus on 40 to 60 percent of the people in the buildings and on frequently touched objects, such as light switches, countertops, push buttons, coffee pot handles, computers and phones. While that doesn’t mean these people had contracted the virus, having traces of it on their skin or clothes puts them at an elevated risk for infection.
It’s no big deal if the virus is harmless, such as the tracer virus used in the study. But imagine if the virus was a stomach bug or flu. The study pointed out a couple of important points about reducing the spread of illness:
- You can’t wash your hands often enough during cold and flu season.
- Using disinfecting wipes or cleaning solutions containing quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATS) once or twice a day on frequently touched surfaces can cut the risk of transmission significantly.
More than 1,500 disinfectants are sold in the United States that use one or more of the many QUAT formulations, said Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences and the lead author of the study. The study was presented at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in September.
Protection against enterovirus D68
Hand-washing and disinfectants can reduce the spread of enterovirus D68, a virus that has circulated this year causing respiratory illness in children—including severe symptoms in some children. “We don’t know as much as we would like to know about this virus, but we believe it spreads similar to ways that other enteroviruses are spread, through respiratory secretions like saliva and mucous,” Anne Schuchat, MD, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national center for immunization and respiratory diseases, said at a recent news media briefing in Atlanta. “The virus likely spreads from person to person when an infected person coughs, sneezes or touches surfaces.”
Protection Against Ebola
Ebola is a virus that cannot be thwarted by hand washing and occasional use of disinfectants. Thankfully, however, uncontrolled Ebola is not circulating in the United States. The CDC has issued stringent safety guidelines for anyone who may come into contact with an Ebola patient. Unlike flu or enterovirus D68, Ebola is not spread in the air, such as by sneezing or coughing, says Thomas Frieden, MD, director of the CDC.
“It’s only spread by direct contact with someone who’s sick with the virus,” Frieden said at a recent news media briefing in Atlanta. “It’s only spread through body fluids. The incubation period is eight to 10 days after exposure. It can be as short as two days or as long as 21 days. It’s a severe disease which has a high case fatality rate, even with the best of care. But there are core tried-and-true public health interventions that stop it.”
The emergence of the Ebola in the United States is a good reminder to avoid using public transportation if you are sick, public health officials note. Wearing a mask (N95 respirator masks filter out 95 percent of small particles when correctly fitted), carrying disinfectant wipes and washing your hands frequently can also cut the risk of picking up an illness on a plane, train or bus.