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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Germs, Germs Everywhere?

For the past couple of days, I've been writing and editing material on Hospital Acquired Infections - a delightful subject in light of my previous OCD concerns about contamination.

I think it's fortunate that I'm working on this stuff now rather than back when I was in the midst of extreme concerns about contamination - because everything written on infection control essentially suggests you do everything that I used to do. Decontaminate hands regularly. Decontaminate inanimate objects. Be careful about contact with bodily fluids. I tell you - I think we just need to put a contamination obsessive compulsive in charge of infection control policies. Problem sorted.

Now instead of worrying about all these things I'm reading, I'm managing wry amusement. When I went down to work on a hospital ward a couple of weeks ago (in a pointless helping-out-with-IT capacity rather than a helpful-curing-patients capacity) I was amused to watch nurses regularly decontaminate their hands with the same sort of anti-bacterial handrub of which I was once so fond. And when a visitor was told that he shouldn't sit on his mother's hospital bed in outdoor clothes for fear of spreading germs and infection, I couldn't help but remember the day when mental healthcare professionals encouraged me to put a bike on my bed. I told the dudes about the incident, which I think they too found rather ironic.

And then today I read this piece, which suggests that we should be worried about antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in everyday life, not just when we're in the hospital. Again, it gives some guidelines which good obsessive compulsives everywhere regard as common sense measures.

Watching the nurses on the ward, and writing advice for them on infection control practices, I began to think it would be very interesting to see whether, after undertaking training in infection control, staff start to become more concerned (perhaps to an obsessive extent) about germs at home.

The government is having a big handwashing push, and really trying to make a difference when it comes to controlling Hospital Acquired Infection. So will we now have a load of nurses who go home and obsess over their sons and daughters touching "contaminated" items? There's a whole nature/nurture study right there.

Right back at the beginning of therapy, I was given an information sheet on OCD which suggested that it's a condition which tends to reflect the concerns of the time. Traditionally, people were very concerned about having blasphemous thoughts. Many people still struggle with this, but it has perhaps become less common as society has become more secular. And then when we became aware of the concept of germs, lots of people started to worry about contamination. When HIV broke out, you find that some people become obsessive compulsive about the possibility of having contracted the disease.

It's only when you start to think about it that you realise how much we're bombarded with messages that aim to make us concerned about germs and contamination. Listen carefully next time there's an ad for Dettox - the scare tactics they use are particularly distasteful ("there's as much bacteria on your child's high chair as there is on your floor" and similar). The day I the dudes convinced me to throw away my then-beloved Dettox Multi-Surface Cleaner was - in retrospect - almost a life-changing moment. I haven't bought a Dettox product since.

And now that we have articles like the one I mentioned earlier warning us that we can get stuff like MRSA just by going about our day to day lives, it can start to seem as though it's not worth leaving the house for fear of being swallowed up by some hideous superbug.

I can't help but wondering if as well as worrying about epidemics of infections caused by bacteria, we should also be worrying about epidemics of severe OCD caused by scare stories about these bacteria.

Just my two cents' worth.


  • At 6:12 PM, Blogger Fizzwhizz said…

    I think you raise a very interesting point here, McR. I too am appalled by the sales tactics that companies like Dettox use (they're not the only ones). All that 'your child could DIE if you don't disinfect everything they touch regularly' stuff is such bullshit, it makes me really angry. In fact, children should get a good dose of a few tummy bugs when they're young to help them build up resistance. And anyway, exposing them to all those horrible inorganic, toxic chemicals is probably doing them way more damage than a few little bacteriums would.
    But, having spent some time in various Asian countries and therefore learned the importance of handwashing (there's nothing like a dose of intestinal amoebas to really make you think twice before you eat a sandwich with unwashed hands), it does amaze me how little attention people in the West pay to hygiene.
    I'm not saying everyone should get all OCD, of course not, but things like, for example, wearing gloves on the Tube, or at least washing your hands when you get into work, are just commonsense, what with 1500 other people having sneezed into their hands and then held onto that handrail before you did. Or washing your hands before you eat your sandwich, to get rid of all the stuff that's accumulated there during a day's worth of shaking hands/pressing elevator buttons/typing on other people's keyboards/blah blah blah.
    Also, the Asian habit of removing one's shoes before you go into a building is another thing that's stuck with me - whereas I'm quite happy to sit on the bed with my outdoor clothes on (I don't often lick my duvet, after all) - the street is a dirty place, when you think about it, and the idea of dragging in all that crap and spreading it around my carpet (or someone else's) is franky disgusting. Not to mention meaning you have to hoover more often and we all know how boring that is, eh kids.
    When I go to visit people they often think it's weird when I take my shoes off at the door, but it's a habit now. Besides it means you can put your feet on the sofa.


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