Technology makes germs more mobile

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Touchscreens are ubiquitous.

In addition to being the new Apple iPhone's key selling point, cruder, less cool incarnations are at ATMs, grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations and kiosks galore -- at movie theaters, hospitals and airports.

If the prognostications of science fiction are any indication (think of the futuristic worlds in films such as "Gattaca" or even cartoons such as "The Jetsons"), there will be only more touchscreens in our future and throughout the galaxy.

With the burgeoning technology of touchscreens, people will be exposed to even more communal, germ-laden surfaces. Still, the old reliable solutions apply for combating exposure to an increased amount of germs, experts say.

"Undoubtedly, any environmental surface that we touch, we can definitely pick up bacteria and viruses, which we can then transmit to ourselves by touching our eyes, nose and mouth or spread to the next person we touch," says Cheryl Herbert, a registered nurse who is certified in infection control and is the infection prevention director at Allegheny General Hospital. "Germ transference in this manner has always occurred, but what's different today is awareness and some of the drug-resistant bacteria that we didn't have before.

"Since Ignaz Semmelweis, one of the fathers of infection control, postulated the theory of hand-washing, we've known if you wash your hands, you don't spread germs," she says.

What's changed since the 1800s is that we live in a highly educated, increasingly mobile society that's dependent upon its technology devices -- including cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, Bluetooth earpieces and laptops.

"Back in the day, nobody was carrying these things around with them in public places," she says. "Now, we're all mobile, we're all out there, we're all touching these devices and they can all become contaminated."

She recommends that people continue to use the good hygiene that their mothers taught them. Namely, don't put your hands in your mouth. Wash your hands before you eat, after you use the restroom and after you cough or sneeze.

"Now, we not only have soap and water, which we've always had, we also have hand sanitizers, alcohol wipes and these different disinfecting products that are easy to carry and safe to use when soap and water is not convenient," she says.

Dr. Nalini Rao, chief of infectious diseases at UPMC Shadyside, agrees that practicing good hygiene is key, but keeping germs to a minimum is a two-sided process.

The public must do its part, but the places that have touchscreens and other equipment that's routinely touched by the public should periodically clean and disinfect such equipment.

"We have touchscreens in the hospital, and we maintain them," says Dr. Rao, who also is a clinical professor in orthopedics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. "We do regular cleaning."

Dr. Rao recommends people use environmentally safe germicidal products for cleaning hard surfaces at home as well as waterless hand-hygiene products, which are basically alcohol with emollients, for on-the-go hand-washing.

"As long as they remember that piece of cleanliness -- personal hygiene and cleaning hands and everything they're likely to touch is something that may carry germs -- I think it should be OK."


L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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