Dr. Bonnie Henry witnessed firsthand the Ebola outbreak in Uganda in 1999, has worked on the World Health Organization’s anti-polio campaign in Pakistan, and acted as Toronto’s associate medical officer of health during its 2003 SARS outbreak. As the director of public-health emergency management at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Henry knows a thing or two about germs. Despite living in a world that has a pill for every ill, she says the best prevention remains straightforward: basic hygiene.
That’s a message that’s getting lost in all the media hype over the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, Henry explains in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of outbreaks, and this one is no different: a lot of basic information is missing,” Henry says. “There’s a lot of fear. Combatting the fear is almost as difficult as combatting the disease itself.
“It’s about going back to basics,” she adds. “[Canadian doctor] William Osler said, ”˜Soap and water and common sense are the best disinfectants,’ and he said that in the 1800s. It’s still true today.”
To help people stay healthy in a germ-filled world, Henry wrote the just-published Soap and Water and Common Sense: The Definitive Guide to Viruses, Bacteria, Parasites, and Disease (Anansi, $19.95). The clearly written book is a fascinating account of everything from influenza to tuberculosis to Cryptococcus gatti, a potentially deadly fungus that exists in the rain forests of central Vancouver Island. She covers several other bugs too, including diphtheria, Campylobacter, hepatitis, dengue, and superbugs in a style more captivating than complicated.
The book’s timing couldn’t be better, with swine flu making its way around the world, though Henry notes she’s been working on her “labour of love” for a few years. However, she’s been a public-health leader on the H1N1 front ever since it first emerged in Mexico City earlier this year. Although the virus can cause serious problems and even death in people with compromised immune systems—such as those with diabetes, heart conditions, cancer, and asthma—Henry stresses that most people who catch it will “feel terrible for a few days” then will get better on their own.
“Everyone needs to listen to their body,” she says. “Stay home when you’re sick. Your body needs to recover; it needs rest and fluids.”
Henry is a big booster of vaccines. She acknowledges that in the past, some flu shots haven’t protected people against whatever strains were going around. The difference this year, in her opinion, is that swine flu is now well-understood.
“We make our best guess every year as to what’s going to circulate,” she says. “This vaccine is designed exactly for this virus. There’s a lot of misunderstandings and perceived dangers about vaccines; these programs are victims of their own success. We don’t see illnesses here that I’ve seen in other parts of the world,” like polio.
Soap and Water and Common Sense is full of intriguing and little-known health information. Mention Salmonella, for instance, and images of raw eggs might come to mind. In fact, the bacterium is “versatile”, and chocolate is a particularly interesting example of the bug’s ability to contaminate food.
More than 400 people in Europe got sick from eating German chocolate between fall 2001 and spring 2002, for instance, and in 2006, Cadbury recalled more than a million chocolate bars after three people became ill in the United Kingdom. Chocolate’s mix of sugar and fat gives the bacteria a suitable environment for it to grow.
The most common food-borne virus, Henry explains in her book, is a newer one called Norovirus, formerly and perhaps still better known as the Norwalk virus. Having gained international notoriety for striking people on cruise ships, it can cause a short but nasty illness marked by “explosive” vomiting, stomach cramps, and watery diarrhea.
“Transmission occurs when contaminated people neglect to wash their hands after using the toilet”¦then prepare food,” Henry writes.
The virus is so contagious that you can get sick just by touching contaminated surfaces that haven’t been thoroughly cleaned.
“Prevention of this sneaky virus goes back to the basics of hygiene,” Henry writes. “Always wash your hands carefully after using the toilet and before preparing or eating food. And if someone in your household does become ill, clean up all surfaces thoroughly with a solution that consists of one part household bleach to nine parts water.”
A far less dramatic illness is the common cold. It can be caused by more than 100 types of bugs, including rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and enteroviruses. Henry stresses that antibiotics do nothing to fight viral infections and that the only cure for a cold is time.
The most important and effective means to avoid catching a cold, once again, is to wash your hands. She suggests using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with a concentration of 60 to 90 percent) at least five times a day. Antibacterial soap isn’t necessary, she says, and only gives rise to more superbugs.
Hand-washing is crucial if you have pets at home or you take your kids to petting zoos, Henry points out. A handful of children got sick with Escherichia coli this past summer after touching animals at the PNE’s petting zoo.
E. coli also shows up in fruit and vegetables that haven’t been properly washed. And just because produce is organic doesn’t mean it’s free of bugs.
“Natural fertilizers are mostly manure,” Henry says of organic food.
You know what to do. Scrub those veggies. Then scrub your hands.