Spread the word, not the germs

In today’s world, we’re well aware of many deadly viruses, thanks to media, anxious friends and the Internet. This past year Ebola raged in Eastern Africa and even made it to American shores. We’re bombarded almost daily by scary stories about strains of Avian, Swine and Bird flus. And closer to home, many of us are still infected by common contagious culprits such as influenza, measles, chickenpox, tuberculosis and even Whooping Cough.

Many infectious diseases can be largely prevented by vaccines. Frequent and thorough hand-washing also helps protect you from infectious diseases. The easiest way to catch most infectious diseases is by coming in contact with a person or animal that has the infection. Three ways infectious diseases can be spread through direct contact are:

  • Person to person. A common way for infectious diseases to spread is through the direct transfer of bacteria, viruses or other germs from one person to another. This can occur when an individual with the bacterium or virus touches, coughs on or kisses someone who isn’t infected. These germs can also spread through food handling, the exchange of body fluids from sexual contact or a blood transfusion. The person who passes the germ may have no symptoms of the disease, but may simply be a carrier.
  • Animal to person. Being bitten or scratched by an infected animal — even a pet — can make you sick and, in extreme circumstances, can be fatal. Handling animal waste can be hazardous, too. For example, you can acquire a toxoplasmosis infection by scooping your cat’s litter box.
  • Mother to unborn child. A pregnant woman may pass germs that cause infectious diseases to her unborn baby. Some germs can pass through the placenta. Germs in the vagina can be transmitted to the baby during birth.

Disease-causing organisms also can be passed by indirect contact. Many germs can linger on an inanimate object, such as a tabletop, doorknob or faucet handle. When you touch a doorknob handled by someone ill with the flu or a cold, for example, you can pick up the germs he or she left behind. If you then touch your eyes, mouth or nose before washing your hands, you may become infected.

Some germs rely on insect carriers — such as mosquitoes, fleas, lice or ticks — to move from host to host. These carriers are known as vectors. Mosquitoes can carry the malaria parasite or West Nile virus, and deer ticks may carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

Another way disease-causing germs can infect you is through contaminated food and water. This transmission mechanism allows germs to be spread to many people through a single source. E. coli, for example, is a bacterium present in or on certain foods — such as undercooked hamburger or unpasteurized fruit juice. E. coli makes people violently stomach sick and dehydrated, and may require hospitalization.

In Connecticut, cases of Pertussis (Whooping Cough) have reemerged in the western part of the State, due largely to parents who choose to not vaccinate their children. Tuberculosis (TB) also remains stubbornly entrenched in Connecticut.

Understanding TB

Tuberculosis is a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects your lungs. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes.

Once rare in developed countries, tuberculosis infections began increasing in 1985, partly because of the emergence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV weakens a person’s immune system so it can’t fight the TB germs. In the United States, because of stronger control programs, tuberculosis began to decrease again in 1993, but remains a concern and fairly active in most major cities.

Many strains of tuberculosis resist the drugs most used to treat the disease. People with active tuberculosis must take several types of medications for many months to eradicate the infection and prevent development of antibiotic resistance.

Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria that spread from person to person through microscopic droplets released into the air. This can happen when someone with the untreated, active form of tuberculosis coughs, speaks, sneezes, spits, laughs or sings.

Although tuberculosis is contagious, it’s not easy to catch. You’re much more likely to get tuberculosis from someone you live with or work with than from a stranger. Most people with active TB who’ve had appropriate drug treatment for at least two weeks are no longer contagious.

Don’t buy into the myths about vaccines

Earlier this year, hundreds of people contracted measles. “Ground zero,” it turned out, was Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. While there were only 50 reported measles infections in the United States in 2009, there had already been 288 cases in the country this year before the end of May 2015. Most of those cases have been linked to the unvaccinated; a recent study found “substandard vaccination” to have been the cause of the massive measles outbreak at Disneyland.

This month, California passed a mandatory vaccination law requiring children to be fully vaccinated before attending public school or a licensed pre-school program. Vaccinating children poses nearly no risk to their health; choosing not to vaccinate not only puts the child in harm’s way, but also endangers other immunocompromised persons — pregnant women, the elderly, and those who’ve had cancer or organ transplants — that un-vaccinated children come into contact with.

Additionally, adults should verify their own vaccination history. Disease resistance can deteriorate over many years, but your physician can easily search for active antibodies through a simple blood test, and revaccinate you as an adult. This is especially important if you work in healthcare, plan to travel internationally or will be living in communal spaces like college dormitories.

Other than a minuscule population who avoid vaccinations based on religious grounds, most non-conforming parents or individuals worry about contracting autism or other diseases from vaccinations. There are absolutely no scientific or medical grounds for that myth. However, an ingredient commonly found in some vaccinations — thimerosal — does contain trace amounts of mercury. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these extremely low doses of thimerosal pose no risk to humans, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site.

While not dangerous, thimerosal has been removed from most vaccines anyway. In fact, there is no thimerosal present in the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella — and there never was.

Follow these tips to decrease your risk of infecting yourself or others:

  • Wash your hands. This is especially important before and after preparing food, before eating and after using the toilet. And try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands, as that’s a common way germs enter the body.
  • Get vaccinated. Immunization can drastically reduce your chances of contracting or spreading many diseases. Make sure to keep up to date on your recommended vaccinations, as well as your children’s.
  • Stay home. Don’t go to work if you are vomiting, have diarrhea or are running a fever. Don’t send your child to school if he or she has these signs and symptoms, either.
  • Prepare food safely. Keep counters and other kitchen surfaces clean when preparing meals. Cook foods to the proper temperature using a food thermometer to check for doneness. For ground meats, that means at least 160 F (71 C), for poultry, 165 F (74 C), and for most other meat, at least 145 F (63 C). In addition, promptly refrigerate leftovers — don’t let cooked foods remain at room temperature for extended periods of time.
  • Practice safe sex. Always use condoms if you or your partner has a history of sexually transmitted infections or high-risk behavior.
  • Don’t share personal items. Use your own toothbrush, comb and razor. Avoid sharing drinking glasses or dining utensils.
  • Travel wisely. If you’re traveling out of the country, talk to your doctor about any special vaccinations you may need or foods to avoid.

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