Archive for January, 2009

Germ Proof Your…Solar System?

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

This week NASA scientists report that they have found methane gas in the atmosphere of Mars. This suggests to them, as it did to British space scientists in 2004, that there may be bacteria living below the ice recently discovered on the red planet. Bacteria. On Mars?

The average temperature on Mars is -51 degrees F (compared with a +57 degrees F average temperature on Earth). Yet, if bacteria are indeed confirmed to be living on Mars, your shouldn’t be shocked.  If you’ve been reading this GERMBlog and Chapters 1 and 2 of Germ Proof Your Kids – The Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2008), you know that bacteria have been found in the most extreme conditions on earth – from the arctic tundra to the cauldrons at the base of our geysers.

The fact that bacteria could survive on Mars may have many fewer implications for science, religion, and philosophy than the fact that another planet in our own solar system can sustain life. With apologies and gratitude to Carl Sagan, how much does that say about the “billions and billions” of other planets in the universe that undoubtedly also harbor life.

Sleep and Infections – Mom (and I) told you so!

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Chapters 9-11 of Germ Proof Your Kids – The Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2008) are entirely devoted to the scientific basis behind Mom’s wisdom for protecting kids from infections. Prominently featured in Chapter 11 is the importance of adequate sleep – sleep deprivation depresses the immune system and makes kids (and adults) more susceptible to germs.

The viruses that cause colds and flu are circulating throughout the year, but are especially prevalent this time of year. Yet, although all of us are exposed to these viruses repeatedly, it is our immune systems that determine if we get sick and how severe our colds and flu episodes become. Getting 4 hours of sleep each night results in a reduction by half in the immunity to influenza (Chapter 11, Germ Proof Your Kids).  A study from Carnegie Mellon University receiving wide publicity this week shows that the chances of getting a common cold are 3-5 times higher in adults who get fewer than 7 hours sleep each night or have trouble sleeping through the night.  These results are consistent with those of past studies – just as mom (and I) have been preaching.

Kids’ bedtimes are a matter of health.  Keep your kids in school and yourselves at work during this cold and flu season – get a good night’s sleep, every night. 

Flu resistance to Tamiflu makes PREVENTION even more important

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Over the past several weeks, word has spread in professional circles about the resistance of most U.S. flu strains this year to the drug Tamiflu. Yesterday and today, the story has been picked up by the general media and, as usual, scary headlines abound.

Tamiflu (generic name: oseltamvir) is one of only 4 antiviral drugs available to treat influenza. With only 4 drugs in the armamentarium, resistance has always been a time bomb waiting to happen. Indeed, 2 others (of the 4 available drugs) have previously been plagued with resistance by flu strains and had largely fallen into disuse. Tamiflu was in many ways the most appealing of all the drugs because it can be given by mouth and can be used in children.  The emergence of resistance to Tamiflu certainly speaks to the need for investment in the development of new medicines to treat flu (keep this in mind the next time you hear someone criticize the “greedy bad guys in the rich drug companies”).

So, is it now time to panic? Nope. First of all, this year’s flu season so far has been a mild one. Secondly, all flu drugs are, by definition, used primarily to TREAT rather than to PREVENT influenza infections. If appropriate PREVENTION steps are taken, the need to treat infection will be greatly reduced. Even now, flu drugs are not used very widely in the U.S. – they are typically given only for the worst cases and to the individuals most susceptible to severe complications when infected.

How to protect ourselves and our kids from flu? Four steps:

1. Flu vaccine. There’s still plenty of time and plenty of vaccine to go around for flu prevention this season. The vaccine has now been recommended for all kids between the ages of 6 months and 18 years. Most adults should also be vaccinated.

2. Personal hygiene and healthy lifestyle.  Careful attention to handwashing, proper nutrition (plenty of vitamin C), adequate sleep, regular moderate exercise, and bundling up in the cold weather will greatly reduce the chances of getting the flu and will make the infection milder if you do get it. For lots of important details (and proof that these measures work), see earlier entries in Dr. Rotbart’s GERMBlog, as well as Chapters 9-11 in Germ Proof Your Kids – the Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2008).

3. Household hygiene. Disinfection of solid surfaces with bleach-containing household disinfectants will reduce the spread of flu among family members. Bleach, unlike other disinfecting substances, kills viruses (like influenza) as well as bacteria germs. Disinfecting wipes are great for those surfaces that don’t lend themselves to mops and sponges – doorknobs, frig handles, phone handsets, etc. Viruses can live on these surfaces for hours to a day or more (see previous posts on Dr. Rotbart’s GERMBlog and Chapter 9 in Germ Proof Your Kids.

4. School hygiene. Schools are uniquie “amplifiers” of influenza (see previous posts on Dr. Rotbart’s GERMBlog and Chapter 9 in bGerm Proof Your Kids. Once the first child in a school gets the infection, it spreads rapidly within the school and then out into the community and into your home. Speak with your kids’ school nurse and school administrators about steps they are taking in the classrooms, gym, and other common areas to reduce the spread of influenza. Refer them to the cover story I wrote for School Nurse News in the Back-to-School September edition, entitled “Germ Proof Your Schools”. Once again, disinfection with bleach-containing commercial disinfectants is central to prevention of spread in schools.

A fifth step could be added – be careful what you read and how you interpret the headlines. Remember, this newfound resistance of influenza to Tamiflu is not (NOT) about the dreaded Bird Flu pandemic that may or may not ever occur. The resistant strains this year are strains of “seasonal flu”, the variety of influenza infection that occurs every year. It is too early to say if next year’s strains will also be resistant, and it is impossible to predict yet how sensitive or resistant a Bird Flu strain might be in the future. For more on balancing prudence with paranoia when reading the news, see Chapter 12 in Germ Proof Your Kids.