Health Team

Hand washing can beat the H1N1 flu

Posted September 10, 2009 12:16 p.m. EDT
Updated September 10, 2009 6:53 p.m. EDT

The vaccine for the H1N1 flu virus won't be available until this fall, but people can already take simple steps to avoid the bug.

The key is to cut the risk of infection. Hands act as magnets for microscopic bacteria and viruses that can easily find their way into bodies.

North Carolina State University students in a food microbiology class taught by Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus looked at surfaces where the germs are found.

"We just took commonly touched areas," senior Liz Greene said. "Mine was a women's toilet seat."

"My surface that I chose was actually the elevator buttons," graduate student Megan Beckner said.

The students used a sticky plate to pick up pathogens, then incubated the sample.

Greene said she found 365 colonies of bacteria in her toilet-seat sample, more than she expected – "which is kind of gross." Beckner found approximately 65 micro-organisms growing in her sample from elevator buttons.

The method didn't identify the bugs, but among them were likely gastrointestinal viruses that can live on surfaces for weeks.

"Influenza viruses are quite different, because they are generally stable on surfaces for a couple of hours," Jaykus said.

Students wiped the surfaces with an ethanol sanitizer, then took another plate sample.

"We only found one colony-forming unit," Greene said.

Jaykus said the lesson learned from the experiment is simple and practical: "Hand washing is absolutely vital, and the ethanol-based hand sanitizers tend to be pretty effective against influenza virus, for instance."

Viruses can also become airborne when people cough, sneeze or vomit. Stay home and isolate yourself if you are sick, and avoid being around people who are sick. Medical masks are effective at blocking airborne viruses.