In the past weeks the news has reported on stomach virus epidemics in several states. More than the usual amount of kids and adults have had vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Though Louisiana wasn’t listed, we in the pediatrics business in Lafayette have been seeing more of these viruses too.
Now with school starting, we will see even more vomiting and diarrhea in kids and their families. Why is that? First, stomach viruses are most often caught from other people. People who already have the virus and are vomiting and having diarrhea, get the virus on their hands and in their saliva. When they touch others, or others drink after them or kiss them, the virus gets into the next person’s body. Viruses can be left by the contaminated person on surfaces like door knobs, kitchen counters, and faucet handles. When someone touches the contaminated surface they pick up the virus. Then they touch their face or lick a finger, and the virus gets inside and sets up shop.
Now you can see why hand washing is so important. Soap and water are great at washing viruses off your hands to keep you from picking up and ingesting viruses, and to keep you from passing a virus you might have to others. And touching your face? It turns out that the average person touches their face about 300 times per day, usually unknowingly. So keep those hands clean so they don’t bring viruses to your face and your body’s “intake” (mouth and nose).
If you want to see a great blockbuster movie about virus spreading, watch Contagion, starring Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet. It is a thriller about a new influenza virus that spreads around the world causing widespread panic and death. The possibilities in the movie are all too real. And throughout the movie I saw many instances where I said to myself, “If only that character had washed her hands. Then she wouldn’t have died.”
But what exactly is a virus? What are these things that cause so many illnesses like vomiting and diarrhea, or colds, or fevers? Simply put, a virus is a microscopic particle that acts like a tiny robot. It is a crystal-shaped chemical machine that injects its own DNA into a person’s own cells. The viruses’ DNA takes control of a cell and turns the cell into a virus-making factory. The cell eventually swells with so many viruses inside and then bursts, spewing those cells to swirl around the microscopic environment of your body. That next generation of viruses takes over more cells.
Fortunately, we have an immune system. Over a matter of days the immune system recognizes the viral invasion and counter-attacks. It cleans up the virus and the body’s healing ability repairs the damage by replacing the destroyed cells with new ones. The body also gets rid of viruses by ejecting them from the body- through sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is good for our bodies but bad for those around us. Others pick up those viruses with their hands and mouths as we talked about above, and get sick too.
One of the great inventions of the 1800s was the idea of hand-washing and public health. Before then, one of every five infants died of an infection before they reached 12 months of age. Children and adults died much more often of infections too. Armies, with their troops crammed together in camps, lost many more men from disease than from battles.
Then science discovered that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Clean hands became popular. Cities and army camps started providing clean water and sewage management. Death rates from infection dropped dramatically. Many more lives have been saved by hand washing and city sewer pipes than by antibiotics or vaccines. What better disease prevention could there be than moving massive amounts of germs away from where people live, eat, and drink?
The lessons are clear- wash your hands! Teach your kids before school starts to wash theirs. Wash them after blowing the nose, touching others, using the bathroom, or touching a possibly dirty surface. Show your kids how to keep safe, from Contagion!