As common as the common cold but a great deal more unpleasant.
Like, 20 million Americans come down with it every year, according the US Centers for Disease Control – nearly 10% of all Yanks.
Hospital wards closed
We’re not much better in the UK either – 610 reported hospital outbreaks in 2013, 94% of them triggering ward closures.
Big time upchucking like that kinda explains why researchers at North Carolina State University and Wake Forest University have recently gone to so much trouble to make a vomiting machine.
If so many people are catching it, the stuff’s got to be airborne.
It’s certainly highly contagious. Spread mostly by touch from infected people – but also from fomites they have touched – door handles, phones, soap, salad servers, light switches – almost any surface is a transmission source.
Apparently the research machine is to prove that particles in airborne vomit spray can easily infect others if they are close enough.
And sure, looks like no doubt of it – the tests are pretty conclusive. The first DIRECT evidence of airborne distribution, according to researchers – happening by a process they call aerosolisation.
Maybe we’re a little slow, but if memory serves correctly norovirus particles are microscopic – around 38 nanometres across. That’s 0.038 microns, or 0.000038 millimetres.
Blowing in the wind
About the same size as atmospheric dust, which the wind regularly blows 3,000 miles from the Sahara desert and dumps on gleaming 4x4s parked in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Doesn’t that mean slightly airborne?
And it only takes 20 or so particles of norovirus to bring you down with gastroenteritis – around 0.00076 millimetres across. Still smaller than the POINT of a pin – and so light it’s heavier than the diesel-laden air around it.
Not only airborne, but light enough NEVER to touch ground again.
And that’s not just us guessing.
More tests, more tests
ANOTHER set of researchers – from Canada’s Université Laval and the Québec Heart and Lung Institute Research Centre – claim to be the first to quantify norovirus particles in the air, in concentrations varying from 13 to 2350 particles per cubic metre.
All tested in eight hospitals and written up in the influential magazine Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Seems you don’t need a vomit machine to prove the stuff is up there.
Any poor sod who’s unlucky enough to be near an existing sufferer can personally do the same.
Or anyone who breathes in a chance 20 particles walking down the street.
Yeah, it’s catching.
Hike up our hygiene
So wash your hands every chance you get.
And insist that the space you live and work in is properly treated with a Hypersteriliser. If you take out ALL viruses and bacteria, norovirus can’t get to you.
Because it would just be your luck to pick up the bug from somebody’s bio-cloud who was in the same room two days ago.
Because our own human body cells are outnumbered by bacteria more than 100 to 1. Every one of them living inside us and actually helping us live. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t survive.
Not who we think we are
Yeah well, the entire world’s like that. Every living thing is home to whole hosts of bacteria essential to existence. Which makes bacteria way more important than most of us ever think. We’re not infected with them, we’re colonised by them.
So our paranoia about destroying them is most unwise.
So how come this blog is called Back Off, Bacteria? Isn’t that about getting rid of microorganisms?
Far from it.
Reality Number One. Bacteria are vitally necessary for every living function.
But not ALL bacteria are appropriate in every situation.
Campylobacter for instance, occurs naturally in poultry – 75% of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and wild birds have it in their gut. Somehow it helps in the digestion of whatever they eat – processing the grit perhaps, or balancing natural sugars.
OK, you can see the connection. Chicken is a highly popular source of cheap protein – so the whole food industry is up in arms about the contamination of our top of the pops menu choice.
It occurs naturally in birds, right? It’s SUPPOSED to be there.
So what’s the problem?
Everybody, the Food Safety Agency, producers, supermarkets, chefs, restaurants – all know that if you cook chicken properly, all campylobacter is destroyed. Those wings, drumsticks and nuggets are totally safe to eat.
So, Reality Number Two. Bacteria are only beneficial when they’re in the right place.
Which is why this blog is called Back Off, Bacteria!
Back Off, Bacteria! Get back to where you belong.
There are over 500 microbe types that colonise our gut – bacteriods, peptococci, staphylococci, streptococci, bacilli, clostridia, yeasts, enterobacteria, fuzobacteria, eubacteria, catenobacteria, etc – we don’t need a rogue outsider coming in and upsetting the apple cart.
As long as a bacterium is in the right place, that’s OK.
But the wrong place needs action if you don’t want to sicken and die.
Which is why – first line of defence – you should wash your hands so you don’t ingest some harmful killer bug you can’t see.
Researchers have also found that the electrical charge in bacteria like e. coli can actually generate light – creating flashes like Christmas tree lights.
Put that together with the fact that we’re always surrounded by a “bio-cloud” of billions and billions of bacteria all the time – and it’s possible that under the right conditions we really do generate a visible aura.
Better still, as bacteria respond to our changing body conditions, the electrical charge they put out could vary, changing the actual colour of this aura. Maybe not a myth any more, but genuine reality. All those child prodigies, swamis and spiritual mediums might have been right all along.
So yeah – germs, we need ’em.
Let’s just make sure we keep them in a safe place.
Not because they need them, but because they think they do. For a cough or a cold. Ailments that antibiotics were never meant to cure. Self-prescription gone mad – and doctors strong-armed into making it happen.
Probably the most dangerous thing anybody ever did. Doting Mums, worried Dads – playing with fire that will come back to burn all of us before the decade is out.
Because antibiotics are NOT the cure-all that everybody thinks they are.
Not any more – and never for situations they weren’t designed for.
You see, using them for everything has blunted their edge.
So many bacteria have developed immunity to them, they’re powerless and useless. And viruses were always resistant to them anyway.
Which means the next time any of us goes for surgery or needs attention after an accident – it won’t be drugs fighting the infection.
First cut is the deepest
It will be surgeons, cutting bits out to improve our survival. Chopping and slicing in the only defence left to us. The only alternative when antibiotics don’t work.
Not nice, eh?
Loosing an arm or a leg because germs got in. Or half a lung, all of your stomach – and just how easy will your life be then? Forget playing the violin again – you could be a basket case.
Which is where all our clamouring for antibiotics is going to get us if we don’t pack it in.
MRSA – methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus – is already a major infection headache for hospitals everywhere. There are many others, and increasing everyday. Soon none of our repertoire of antibiotics will have any effect at all.
All because the wonder-drugs of fifty years ago are now used everywhere on an industrial scale. Agriculture alone uses near 500 TONNES a year – no wonder they’re over-used!
Talked to the staff at your local school recently?
Beyond the polite smiles and friendly greeting. Beyond the usual about how your child is doing. Down to the real stuff about what’s actually going on.
The sordid side
Like the disaster of meal times.
No, it’s not anything about the food or how it’s served. In most places that’s pretty good and the dinner ladies know what they’re doing.
It’s the kids themselves. Their manners.
Not just some of them, more like ALL – yours included. Right through junior school and all the way to Sixth Form.
Peer group pressure and all that.
What’s a knife? What’s a fork?
Because none of them seem to know about knives and forks.
Half of them don’t even pick them up and put them on their lunch tray.
Uh huh. Spot the missing life skill – or why they’ll never get invited to Buckingham Palace.
Well, you try it. How are you going to eat your pasta with tomato sauce when you sit down? Or your chicken roast with gravy and vegetables?
No, it’s not like eating Indian food – where eating with your fingers is the cultural thing.
This is the full-on horrific kids catastrophe – greasy fingers, dribbled clothing, smears of sauce around their mouths.
Horrific, but it’s true.
Check it out with the teachers who do lunch hall duty.
It’s not a one-off, these kids do it regularly. They never seem to think otherwise.
Which boggles the mind about whether they washed their hands beforehand. Or at all.
Because there’s plenty of evidence they don’t do it afterwards. Stains on exercise books, blotches on clothing, faces like make-up sessions gone wrong.
Handle it, THIS IS THE NORM!
No manners makes monsters
Ask why, and the teachers will tell you. Either the family never eats at table. Or meals at home are always convenience eating. A sandwich at the computer. Chicken nuggets and chips in front of the TV.
Just check the greasy marks on light switches, door handles, keyboards and remotes!
That’s the evidence, right there.
Nobody’s washing their hands. Probably not before – and certainly not after. And don’t even think about when they go to the toilet.
So if your little Princess comes home with a tummy ache, or cramps, or spends half the night on the loo – yes, it’s the school’s fault.
Not because hygiene standards in the place are lax. But because the kids themselves don’t have any. And nobody’s allowed to come down heavy, insisting on basic minimum cleanliness.
Political correctness and all that – teachers are gagged. Even sharp voices can get them fired – no matter how far these embryo delinquents push the envelope.
Whatever happened to the principle that rights have to be earned?
Yup, we’ve brought it on ourselves.
First with our own lack of discipline. Second with our increasingly crazy lifestyle.
Our whole fast-food, always-on-the-go culture. Meals gobbled on the fly, usually in a rush, with never a thought about soap and water. Everyone grows up and 95% of us still have no clue how to wash our hands properly.
Hello, norovirus – the vomit-comet wonderbug! Over and over again.
No wonder it’s all over the place – fear of soap and water.
Oh yes, you can betcha. If the kids bring gastro-whatever into the house, everybody’s going to get it, including you. They’re not washing their hands at school, so what’s different at home?
Because too many of us default on inculcating life skills. Cop out of being parents. Duck out of responsibilities. Feeding the myth that kids are in school because it’s a crèche – child-minding while we go to the mall, or rush off to the office.
Sad, totally sad.
So you’re going to come down with the tummy cramps and diarrhoea upchuck – so is everybody at work because norovirus takes three days to show itself. Three days of unsuspecting innocence until all hell breaks loose – or more accurately, all poo breaks loose.
Nauseating, isn’t it?
And how can we be so sure it’ll be norovirus?
It’s more common than the common cold, highly contagious, and never loses an opportunity to exploit sloppy hygiene.
All from dirty hands. Two minutes with soap and water – the same time it takes to brush your teeth. (You mean the kids don’t do that either!)
OK, back to earth. Want to stay well?
You’re safe enough – as long as your kids mind their Ps and Qs.
Scary pictures of medics like spacemen. Panic headlines about killer diseases – Ebola, MERS and Lassa fever.
How safe are we? Are we all going to die?
Scrub, swab, rinse
Out with the bucket and sponge, heavy on the bleach. Don’t let those killers get to us.
They can’t can they?
Except, all those masks and overalls…
Maybe our wipe-clean disinfecting doesn’t go far enough. Shouldn’t we do more? We’re safe enough here in the UK, but what about flu and norovirus – aren’t they contagious and airborne too?
Which brings us to how to protect ourselves.
Fumigation. Like they do for rats and cockroaches. The whole house shrouded in plastic, everybody out for a week. A bit radical though, isn’t it? Like we can’t do it every week.
So how about the alternatives?
There are a lot of good ones.
Cheapest and quickest is a disinfecting aerosol “bomb”. Disinfecting, not sterilising, but it does clobber most of any germs present – airborne and surface.
Shut the windows and doors, put the aerosol in the middle of the room, hit the button – and leave. An aerosol fog of ammonium chloride is released, filling the room like bathroom steam. Any viruses or bacteria are oxidised to nothing. Twenty minutes and you’re done.
Sort of. Because – heavier than air – the fog can’t get everywhere. Nor can it reach into crevices and corners. It does a “general ” disinfect but that’s it.
There could still be germs lurking in the shadows – and probably are. There’s nothing to get the stuff under things or behind them. But hey, it leaves a nice fresh smell – so at least you’re safer than you were.
Ultra violet, ultra effective
More serious are the “zappers”. Impressive pieces of kit that generate ultraviolet light. UV is deadly to viruses and bacteria, destroying their DNA. Just a few seconds of exposure and boom – they’re gone.
These sterilisers are not small – about the size of an office photocopier – and just as unwieldy. OK to move around in the same room, but a bit of a mission to trundle round a whole building.
Satisfyingly high-tech though.
Programmable to select room size, radiation dose and duration – with remote control so they can be operated from outside. You don’t want to be present when those UV rays start bombarding – not good for the body, or soul.
Very effective though. Done in five minutes. All surfaces, and the air too.
Which means for a room with high turnover, a dental surgery say, it’s a quick way to blitz an operating room between patients straight in off the street. Familiar territory for dentists too, they’re already used to vacating the place while they take X-rays.
There is a downside though.
Like all light, UV rays only work on line of sight. Anything the light generator cannot “see” is not exposed. Germs breeding in that location are not destroyed.
Which means the back side of objects, the sides that face away from the machine. Behind the beds, the desks, the cupboards, the chairs. Half the job.
In bigger rooms there’s a fall-off effect too. The further away from the light, the weaker the exposure. Germs can survive to infect another day.
Both problems can be reduced by re-siting the machine, and blitzing the room again. A bit of a schlep, but it gets the job done. And way more pleasant than slopping around with bleach.
Google it every which way, you’ll find it by far the most effective at destroying germs by oxidising them. Which is why so many hospitals have these sterilisers in operation – misting the place up with hydrogen peroxide vapour is a sure way to preserve patient safety.
By any standards, hydrogen peroxide is THE BUSINESS in nailing viruses and bacteria. Contact with germs kills 99.9999% of them – down to one germ in a million, hardly measurable below that – a Sterility Assurance Level of Log 6.
But, like the zappers, there’s a downside.
To be effective – that means its kill strength – the hydrogen peroxide has to be a 12% solution, pretty potent and not exactly friendly to human metabolisms. The stuff is hazardous to handle.
Everything wet, wet, wet
It’s also wet, wet, wet – basically a dosed water vapour sprayed into the air, very much like low temperature steam. It spreads, does its job, and slowly sinks back down, leaving a layer of condensation all over everything.
For this reason there’s not just one machine but two – both about the size of an office photocopier. One to spread the stuff, the other to dry the place out afterwards. So everything is not just wet, it gets heated up too. A bit hairy on sensitive equipment, particularly anything electrical.
Nor does the heavier-than-air hydrogen peroxide spread everywhere, either. Like ammonium chloride, it can’t reach all the nooks and crannies. It doesn’t behind or under everything either. Like the steam in your bathroom, it just swirls around.
You might have a Log 6 kill rate, but the job’s not all done. Not in the darkened corners – risky with MRSA and other resistant microorganisms floating around.
And float they do. Most germs are so tiny, they could fall right through a piece of blotting paper. Except they’re lighter than air and too small to see, so they could float around for ever, maybe NEVER falling all the way to the floor.
So it’s swings and roundabouts. Plus you need a hefty bloke to manhandle these HP sterilisers around.
Which is where the super-whammies come in – machines that generate ionised hydrogen peroxide. (iHP).
Super technology too. Developed from the military, the first of these uses multiple spray heads mounted on tripods. Flexible tubes feed the hydrogen peroxide solution from a central spray reservoir, carefully metered by a control unit.
In the actual spray head, a whopping great arc of high voltage electricity ionises the hydrogen peroxide molecules, giving them each the same negative charge.
OK, remember your school physics? Like charges repel, right? And unlike charges attract.
So these ionised hydrogen peroxide molecules exit the spray nozzle at speed, vigorously and actively trying to get away from each other – going seriously crazy.
Result, the hydrogen peroxide disperses faster, further, wider, longer. It gets into things, behind them, under and over. And it presses deep into cracks and crevices, still trying to get away from its brothers. Ain’t no germs going to get away from that.
There’s another dimension too, quite literally.
Ionising the hydrogen peroxide changes its state from a vapour or gas – to a dynamically different plasma – the fourth state of matter.
Whammo! It’s not like vapour any more – and a whole load of other germ killers get released too. Reactive oxygen species from the hydrogen peroxide itself of course – plus hydroxyl radicals, ozone – itself a super-powerful oxidiser, and ultraviolet – the same stuff used in the zappers.
It gets better. Because all these negatively charged particles actively hunt – and actually reach out and grab – positively charged viruses and bacteria.
World War Three in microcosm – no more nasties of any kind. They are the departed.
And there’s an even better super-whammy machine too.
Because it’s a whole mission setting up all those spray-heads on tripods and a bit clunky, this jobbie is an all-in-one mobile unit. And yes, we do have a vested interest in it because it’s simply the best there is – the Hypersteriliser.
Straight off, you can see some thought’s gone into it.
No fiddly castors you can never steer, like a supermarket trolley – this thing’s got big wheels like a wheelie-bin but bigger, so you can get it up and down steps without giving yourself a hernia.
It’s all integrated too. You just dial up the dosage according to room-size and the machine calculates the rest. Press one button, leave the room and 60 seconds later the fine-mist spray begins, ionised just as it leaves the nozzle.
Which highlights another plus. Ionising makes the hydrogen peroxide more effective – as we’ve seen with the other machine, releasing other high-powered germ killers. This action allows a weaker solution – 6% instead of 12% – safer to use, and able to dissipate smaller and finer.
The silver edge
This plus performance plasma also packs another punch. It includes colloidal silver, a centuries-old germ-fighter first used by the ancient Greeks.
OK, give it twenty minutes.
As the plasma destroys germs, it loses its charge and reverts to harmless water and oxygen. It also evaporates, drying before it touches anything.
That makes it safe for computer keyboards and sensitive connections – and leaves a microscopically thin veneer of silver as an antimicrobial protection barrier on every surface. Lasting protection for up to weeks.
Is there a downside?
There always is, isn’t there?
As yet, they don’t make a rechargeable battery-powered model, so you can’t take it out into a busy transport yard to do trucks, containers, or buses and trains, without trailing a long mains lead.
The same with aircraft of course – though it’s way more effective than systems requiring several truckloads of kit for the same job.
Hiking up our hygiene
Whew! It’s been quite a haul getting here – and there’s no doubt which of these options we favour. But just remember, they’re all good – and anything that reduces the germ threshold is a step in the right direction.
The more protection we can give each other – particularly in the dense and vulnerable groups modern living seems to need – schools, hotels, offices, restaurants, cruise liners, you name it, the safer everyone can be.
Just think of it – no more norovirus, no more flu.
It won’t happen of course, because to do that, we’ve ALL got to remember to wash our hands all the time.
Whether you got away without washing your hands or not.
Not that you really think about it when you’re having fun. You’re on a roll – grab a burger and go, go, go! Why not, it’s summer. Party time!
Until your four hours are up.
Paying the price
That’s how long the collywobbles usually take.
Cramps, nausea – the price you pay for forgetting soap and water.
Not nice, but it could be worse.
Like full-on norovirus – the super-puke nasty. All happy-happy for up to three days before it kicks in.
Then the cramps.
And the nausea, so bad you think you might die. And the vomiting, so bad you’re terrified that you won’t.
Oh yes, and the diarrhoea – all of your insides suddenly outside and burning like hell – over and over again. Up to four days of it if you’re unlucky.
Serious dehydration and up to a million hospital cases every year in the UK. And the lurking reality that 80 people a year actually die from it.
One hell of a price to pay for a burger.
Down and dirty
Because that’s where it starts. Right there at your fingertips. Or more accurately, ON your fingertips.
You see, we reckon we’re so safe and invincible most of the time, hand hygiene never even occurs to us. This is good old Britain, it can’t happen to us. It’s not like we’re in darkest Africa – underdeveloped, underfunded and forgotten, with disease round every corner.
So it’s highly likely we can go through a WHOLE DAY without washing our hands even once. Touching handles, keypads, phones – and then our faces, where germs are most likely to get in.
Not everything we touch is clean either – so there’s dirt and crud and other stuff, even poo.
And how about those nappy changes on the back seat of the car, which only gets cleaned maybe once a month? Do you always use wet wipes? Do you even carry a gel?
Fact is, 95% of us don’t wash our hands properly even when we do. A five-second rinse under the tap does nothing – or makes it even worse if you dry your hands on your clothes. Germs thrive on dirty wet.
Five minutes of easy effort to avoid the death of us – and still we don’t do it. That’s why we call it the Don’t-Wash-Hands Disease.
Because nine times out of ten, all those food poisoning stories you hear are self-inflicted.
Dodgy dinner ingredients or scruffy staff?
You might want to rethink that. Because even the poshest of us never thinks to wash our hands before sitting down to splurge in a five-star restaurant.
And the germs on the door handle of a Mercedes ML 450 are just as potent as those on the strap-handles of the Bakerloo Line.
Far and wide
Worse, because of the incubation period, it spreads to everyone we have contact with and we’re none of us any the wiser. Everyone we meet, touch, hug, shake hands with, kiss.
And norovirus is possibly the most contagious of all time. More than the common cold. So transfer is inevitable. Everyone can get it and does – the ultimate cruise ship souvenir.
Plus, you’ve got to remember it’s a virus. A half-alive organism that can last active and awake for days and weeks without sustenance. Or survive dormant for years if necessary, waiting for your live body cells to give it power and energy.
So it’s not the burger that gives you cramps.
It’s unwashed hands. Forgetfulness. Unintended negligence that could cost you your life.
Five minutes with soap and water, that’s all.
A good burger from McDonalds is less than a quid, surely you’re worth more than that?
And the Cunard cruise line has actually banned contact altogether.
No more courtesy greeting gestures, the Captain is officially off limits.
Shaking off sickness
Norovirus paranoia has finally spoken – with recognition that the bug is spread by physical contact.
Hence all the hoo-hah about alternative greeting actions, like fist bumps.
Er, no. For a classy £5,000-a-head swank-arama cruise on one of Cunard’s Queens, a “hey dude” greeting like a fist bump doesn’t exactly fit the protocol.
Not any ordinary cruise line, right?
Like, for a company currently celebrating 175 years in the No 1 slot of high society leadership, where’s the tradition and ceremony?
Because the time-honoured ritual of shaking hands is not just going through the motions, it’s a centuries-old signal of peaceful intentions – open demonstration that no weapon is threatening, the meeting is non-hostile.
Kind of important to a cruise line where the Captain is always in dress whites – you can even imagine a ceremonial sword too.
And you’re not a pirate.
Fist bump? Not on his watch!
OK, so the story has hit the headlines – and norovirus is the bad guy, again.
Notice how carefully everybody steps around the real issue behind ANY norovirus issue.
Somebody’s got dirty hands.
Which is why all the nonsense with fist bumps – the norovirus handshake.
Not good enough, Jim – the stuff spreads on contact. The only way to be virus-free is the Ebola handshake – no contact means NO CONTACT.
Denial, denial, denial
As if any of your top rank dowagers are going to admit dirty paws. Or any of your high-flying millionaire business types either. Dirty hands are dirty hands – exactly the same for celebrities and nobodies both. A revelation about white gloves for ceremonies, isn’t it?
And anyway, fist bump – where does that come from?
Pro boxers squaring up in the ring before a fight, that’s where – since the early 1900s. Legends like Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. Shake like gentlemen and come out fighting.
Yeah, right. So your intentions ARE warlike.
You want to beat someone up – AND you want to pass on your norovirus – our modern take on the age-old insult “you make me sick”.
You don’t get it from something you’ve eaten or dodgy hygiene in a restaurant. Not always, at any rate. Truth is, that is probably rarer than you think. Though restaurants always get the blame. For every one finger pointing, there’s always three pointing back.
Nine times out of ten it’s germs from your own unwashed hands that give you the stomach bug. The burger you chowed on during the shore excursion – or a close relative.
Puts a whole new perspective on food labelled “Gastro” doesn’t it? (Is it guaranteed to give you gastroenteritis?)
Because if we’re honest, when was the last time ANY of us washed our hands? A whole morning? A whole day?
And how many times have we been to the loo in that time?
Enjoying ourselves on a cruise ship – cokes, margaritas, milk shakes. Let’s not kid ourselves – that’s at least two diversions for a sprinkle.
Down and dirty
And you ate that burger with your fingers?
Makes you queasy just reading about it, hey?
But there’s an answer. One that none of us seem to WANT to accept.
Denial is easier, it can’t happen to me.
Until the first cramps happen – the first upchuck.
There ain’t no immunity – and this stuff spreads like wildfire. But there is protection – we do have a defence.