Plane cabins are havens for germs. Here’s how they can clean up their act


Ipek Kurtböke, University of the Sunshine Coast

Qantas has unveiled a range of precautions to guard passengers against COVID-19. The safety measures expected to be rolled out on June 12 include contactless check-in, hand sanitiser at departure gates, and optional masks and sanitising wipes on board.

Controversially, however, there will be no physical distancing on board, because Qantas claims it is too expensive to run half-empty flights.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing airlines to look closely at their hygiene practices. But aircraft cabins were havens for germs long before the coronavirus came along. The good news is there are some simple ways on-board hygiene can be improved.




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Common sense precautions

As an environmental microbiologist I have observed, in general, a gradual loss of quality in hygiene globally.

Airports and aircrafts have crammed ever larger numbers of passengers into ever smaller economy-class seats.

Although social distancing can’t do much in a confined cabin space – as the virus is reported to be able to travel eight meters — wearing face masks (viral ones in particular) and practising hand hygiene remain crucial.

Since microorganisms are invisible, it is hard to combat such a powerful enemy. During flights, I have observed a vast array of unwitting mistakes made by flight crew and passengers.

Some crew staff would go to the bathroom to push overflowing paper towels down into the bins, exit without washing their hands and continue to serve food and drinks.

We have the technology for manufacturers to install waste bins where paper towels can be shredded, disinfected and disposed of via suction, as is used in the toilets. Moreover, all aircraft waste bins should operate with pedals to prevent hand contamination.

Also, pilots should not share bathrooms with passengers, as is often the case. Imagine the consequences if pilots became infected and severely ill during a long flight, to the point of not being able to fly. Who would land the plane?

For instance, the highly transmissible norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea, can manifest within 12 hours of exposure. So for everyone’s safety, pilots should have their own bathroom.

Food and the kitchen

Aircraft kitchen areas should be as far as possible from toilets.

Male and female toilets should be separated because, due to the way men and women use the bathroom, male bathrooms are more likely to have droplets of urine splash outside the toilet bowl. Child toilets and change rooms should be separate as well.

Food trolleys should be covered with a sterile plastic sheet during service as they come close to seated passengers who could be infected.

And to allow traffic flow in the corridor, trolleys should not be placed near toilets. At times I have seen bread rolls in a basket with a nice white napkin, with the napkin touching the toilet door.

Also, blankets should not be used if the bags have been opened, and pillows should have their own sterile bags.

Mind your luggage

In March, luggage handlers were infected with COVID-19 at Adelaide Airport.

As a passenger, you should avoid placing your hand luggage on the seats while reaching into overhead lockers. There’s a chance your luggage was placed on a contaminated surface before you entered the plane, such as on a public bathroom floor.

Be wary of using the seat pocket in front of you. Previous passengers may have placed dirty (or infected) tissues there. So keep this in mind when using one to hold items such as your passport, or glasses, which come close to your eyes (through which SARS-CoV-2 can enter the body).

Also, safety cards in seat pockets should be disposable and should be replaced after each flight.




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In facing the COVID-19 crisis, it’s important to remember that unless an antiviral drug or a vaccine is found, this virus could come back every year.

On many occasions, microbiologists have warned of the need for more microbiology literacy among the public. Yet, too often their calls are dismissed as paranoia, or being overly cautious.

But now’s the time to listen, and to start taking precaution. For all we know, there may be even more dangerous superbugs breeding around us – ones we’ve simply yet to encounter.The Conversation

Ipek Kurtböke, Senior Lecturer, Environmental Microbiology, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Deeply worrying’: 92% of Australians don’t know the difference between viral and bacterial infections


Paul De Barro, CSIRO

We are four months into a global virus outbreak, and public health awareness could well be at an all-time high. Which is why it is astonishing to discover that 92% of Australians don’t know the difference between a viral infection and a bacterial one.

The statistic comes from a survey carried out by CSIRO in March to inform our work on the OUTBREAK project – a multi-agency mission aimed at preventing outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Our survey of 2,217 people highlights a disturbing lack of knowledge about germs and antibiotics. It reveals 13% of Australians wrongly believe COVID-19, a viral disease, can be treated with antibiotics, which target bacteria.




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More than a third of respondents thought antibiotics would fix the ‘flu or a sore throat, while 15% assumed antibiotics were effective against chicken pox or diarrhoea.

While 25% of those surveyed had never heard of antibiotic resistance, 40% admitted having taken antibiotics that didn’t clear up an infection. And 14% had taken antibiotics as a precaution before travelling overseas, despite this being unnecessary and ineffective for warding off holiday ailments.

Fuelling the rise of superbugs

The results are deeply worrying, because people who do not understand how antibiotics work are more likely to misuse or overuse them. This in turn fuels the rise of drug-resistant bacteria (also known as “superbugs”) and life-threatening infections.

While COVID-19 has brought the economy to its knees, superbugs pose economic challenges too. Australian hospitals already spend more than A$11 million a year treating just two of the most threatening drug-resistant infections, ceftriaxone-resistant E. coli and methicillin-resistant MRSA.

Without effective antibiotics, thousands more people will die from sepsis and people will be sicker for longer, slashing the size of the workforce and productivity. By 2050, drug-resistant bacteria are forecast to cost the nation at least A$283 billion and kill more people than cancer.




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One crucial way to stop this is to improve public understanding of the value of antibiotics. Antibiotics that lose their effectiveness are very difficult to replace, so they need to be treated with respect.

Almost all today’s antibiotics were developed decades ago and, of the 42 antibiotics under development worldwide, only five are considered truly new, and only one targets bacteria of greatest drug-resistance concern.

No time to waste

We don’t know the full impact of drug-resistant bacteria in Australia. With about 75% of emerging infectious diseases coming from animals, there is no time to waste in getting a better understanding of how superbugs are spreading between humans, the environment and animals. That’s where the OUTBREAK project comes in.

This network, led by the University of Technology Sydney, uses artificial intelligence to analyse an immense amount of human, animal and environmental data, creating a nationwide system that can predict antibiotic-resistant infections in real time. It maps and models responses and provides important information to doctors, councils, farmers, vets, water authorities, and other stakeholders.

OUTBREAK offers Australia a unique opportunity to get on the front foot against superbugs. It would save millions of lives and billions of dollars, and could even be scaled globally.

Alongside this high-tech response, we need Australians to get to know their germs, and stop taking antibiotics unnecessarily. Without antibiotics, we may find ourselves facing a host of new incurable diseases, even as the world grapples with COVID-19.The Conversation

Paul De Barro, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mobile phones are covered in germs. Disinfecting them daily could help stop diseases spreading



shutterstock.

Lotti Tajouri, Bond University; Mariana Campos, Murdoch University; Rashed Alghafri, Bond University, and Simon McKirdy, Murdoch University

There are billions of mobile phones in use around the globe. They are present on every single continent, in every single country and in every single city.

We reviewed the research on how mobile phones carry infectious pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and we believe they are likely to be “Trojan horses” that contribute to community transmission in epidemics and pandemics.

This transfer of pathogens on mobile phones poses a serious health concern. The risk is that infectious pathogens may be spreading via phones within the community, in workplaces including medical and food-handling settings, and in public transport, cruise ships and aeroplanes.

Currently mobile phones are largely neglected from a biosecurity perspective, but they are likely to assist the spread of viruses such as influenza and SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.




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What the research shows

We reviewed all the studies we could find in peer-reviewed journals that analysed microbes found on mobile phones. Our conclusions are published in the Journal of Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease.

There were 56 studies that met our criteria, conducted in 24 countries around the world between 2005 and 2019.

Most of the studies looked at bacteria found on phones, and several also looked at fungi. Overall, the studies found an average of 68% of mobile phones were contaminated. This number is likely to be lower than the real value, as most of the studies aimed to identify only bacteria and, in many cases, only specific types of bacteria.

The studies were all completed before the advent of SARS-CoV-2, so none of them could test for it. Testing for viruses is laborious, and we could find only one study that did test for them (specifically for RNA viruses, a group that includes SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses).

Some studies compared the phones of healthcare workers and those of the general public. They found no significant differences between levels of contamination.

What this means for health and biosecurity

Contaminated mobile phones pose a real biosecurity risk, allowing pathogens to cross borders easily.

Viruses can live on surfaces from hours to days to weeks. If a person is infected with SARS-CoV-2, it is very likely their mobile phone will be contaminated. The virus may then spread from the phone to further individuals by direct or indirect contact.

Mobile phones and other touchscreen systems – such as at airport check-in counters and in-flight entertainment screens – may have contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the globe.

Why phones are so often contaminated

Phones are almost ideal carriers of disease. We speak into them regularly, depositing microbes via droplets. We often have them with us while we eat, leading to the deposit of nutrients that help microbes thrive. Many people use them in bathrooms and on the toilet, leading to faecal contamination via the plume effect.

And although phones are exposed to microbes, most of us carry them almost everywhere: at home, at work, while shopping, on holidays. They often provide a temperature-controlled environment that helps pathogens survive, as they are carried in pockets or handbags and are rarely switched off.

On top of this, we rarely clean or disinfect them. Our (unpublished) data suggests almost three-quarters of people have never cleaned their phone at all.




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What this means: clean your phone

While government agencies are providing guidelines on the core practices for effective hand hygiene, there is little focus on practices associated with the use of mobile phones or other touch screen devices.

People touch their mobile phones on average for three hours every day, with super-users touching phones more than 5,000 times a day. Unlike hands, mobile devices are not regularly washed.

We advise public health authorities to implement public awareness campaigns and other appropriate measures to encourage disinfection for mobile phones and other touch screen devices. Without this effort, the global public health campaign for hand washing could be less effective.

Our recommendation is that mobile phones and other touch screen devices should be decontaminated daily, using a 70% isopropyl alcohol spray or other disinfection method.

These decontamination processes should be enforced especially in key servicing industries, such as in food-handling businesses, schools, bars, cafes, aged-care facilities, cruise ships, airlines and airports, healthcare. We should do this all the time, but particularly during a serious disease outbreak like the current COVID-19 pandemic.The Conversation

Lotti Tajouri, Associate Professor, Biomedical Sciences, Bond University; Mariana Campos, Lecturer and researcher, Murdoch University; Rashed Alghafri, Honorary Adjunct Associate Professor, Bond University, and Simon McKirdy, Professor of Biosecurity, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a 150-year-old experiment with a beam of light showed germs exist — and that a face mask can help filter them out



John Tyndall used a beam of light to reveal floating motes of organic matter in the air which he believed carried disease.
Shutterstock

Ian Hesketh, The University of Queensland

Respirators and face masks are staple pieces of personal protective equipment for hospital workers and others in public health, as the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us.

They can protect the wearer, but for diseases like COVID-19 that spread via discharged droplets they can also help prevent infected people spreading the disease further.

We can trace the popularity of respirators back to a paper presented to the Royal Institution in London in 1870 by a man named John Tyndall.

With the help of a beam of light, Tyndall demonstrated not only that dust in the air could contain germs and disease but also that a cotton-wool respirator could filter them out. The story of how Tyndall, an Irish physicist, became an advocate for the germ theory of disease and the mass production of cotton-wool respirators is far from straightforward.

John Tyndall’s 1870 lecture at the Royal Institution in London boosted the credibility of the theory that diseases are caused by germs.
London Illustrated News / Wikimedia

Who was John Tyndall?

Tyndall is today little remembered, although he has recently received more attention including a well-received biography and the publication in instalments of his massive correspondence.

Much of the attention has to do with the fact that several of his discoveries contributed to our understanding of climate science. He discovered what we now call the “greenhouse effect” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as drawing links between the movement of glaciers and atmospheric pressure. He also explained, by considering the effect of light on the particles in the air, why the sky is blue.

Tyndall is today best known for discovering that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere.
Wikimedia

It was researching light and particles that led Tyndall to think more carefully about what he called “Dust and Disease”, the title of his January 1870 lecture at the Royal Institution. In order to study the decomposition of water vapour by light, Tyndall decided he needed to remove dust particles in the air that were complicating his experimental results. This proved more difficult than he anticipated.

Dust and disease

As he tried various strategies for removing the dust that seemed ubiquitous in the beam of light, he let some of the dust particles pass over the tip of a flame. At this point the matter burnt up in a trail of smoke, only leaving behind a blackness in the light beam. This was not what Tyndall expected and it led him to accept that the matter was organic in nature.

He soon discovered these organic dust particles were not only found in his Royal Institution laboratory but were in the air everywhere, and were therefore constantly passing into human lungs with every breath. As Tyndall wrote:

There is no respite to this contact with dirt, and the wonder is not that we should from time to time to suffer from its presence, but that so small a portion of it would appear to be deadly to man.

But deadly it most assuredly was. As his biographer Roland Jackson has argued, Tyndall believed the floating matter contained “the germs that cause disease and decay”.

The germ theory of disease

Tyndall thus hesitantly aligned himself with the “germ theory” of disease, which was still highly contested at the time. The germ theory held that epidemic disease was spread by microorganisms that could be carried through the air and so enter people’s bodies.

Through his experiments, Tyndall believed he had added a new source of evidence for explaining the cause of disease and decay. But his experiments also pointed towards a possible way to stop or reduce the spread of such disease.

While organic dust could not be blown away or somehow ejected from the air, Tyndall showed it could be filtered out through cotton wool. Further experiments showed the filtering process was most effective when applied to human breathing.

The practical application of the experiments seemed obvious:

If a physician wishes to hold back from the lungs of his patient, or from his own, the germs by which contagious disease is said to be propagated, he will employ a cotton wool respirator … Such respirators must, I think, come into general use as defense against contagion.

Better masks, fighting germs

Tyndall was heavily criticised by the London medical community for overstepping the boundaries of his scientific expertise. However, he continued his experiments with “floating matter”.

Applying his research, he developed a much-improved gas mask for firefighters. He also created techniques for preserving food and for sterilisation through discontinuous heating, a process now known as Tyndallisation.

Tyndall died in 1893. By that time the germ theory of disease was widely accepted, in large part due to Tyndall’s experiments, and today it is entirely taken for granted.

It also shapes our understanding of COVID-19 and how we go about mitigating the spread of the disease, such as by using cotton masks not too different from the ones Tyndall advocated producing 150 years ago.The Conversation

Ian Hesketh, ARC Future Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.