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By Griffin Swartzell, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 17, 2019
Proper handwashing can help prevent the spread of infectious disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines on how to do it effectively. First, wet your hands with clean, running water. Next, apply soap and lather your hands. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, making sure to get the backs of your hands and under your nails. Finally, rinse your hands under clean, running water and dry them. (U.S. Air Force photo by Griffin Swartzell)
The respectful, ready and responsible Airman has many adversaries, but few are so subtle and insidious as viruses and bacteria. Recently, a contractor working on Peterson Air Force Base caught a gastrointestinal infection caused by a bacteria called shigella. It’s a self-limiting disease, according to Lt. Col. Heath Woockman, 21st Medical Group public health flight commander, so in most cases, the disease runs its course without treatment. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
“Shigella is one of those things that can spread very quickly,” Woockman explains.
Shigella is spread through fecal-oral contact, according to Woockman. That means shigella bacteria often get onto a person’s hands when they use the bathroom and either don’t wash properly or touch a contaminated surface after washing. That also means people can be exposed in places like child daycares, where diapers are changed, and by touching or eating unwashed produce, even organic produce, citing the water source used as the most significant possible disease vector.
Woockman says that the best way to prevent the spread of shigella and similar diseases is good old-fashioned hand-washing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend scrubbing hands for 20 seconds before rinsing to best ensure that hands are free of disease-causing microbes. While the CDC acknowledges that alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help reduce the number of germs on hands, it’s better as a contingency.
“When you're washing your hands you're not only loosening up particles, you're washing them off,” says Woockman. “Then the mechanical action of using paper towel that further cleans your hands is just more thorough.”
Woockman says that cases of illnesses like shigella are present year-round, but he sees a spike in cases about two weeks after the start of a new school year.
“Any place where there's a large group of people with varying levels of hygiene, multiple people can be sick,” says Woockman. “So by washing your hands, you're not only protecting yourself, you're protecting others around you.”
If someone shows signs of being infected with shigella or any other communicable disease, the best way to avoid spreading it is to go home and avoid contact with other people.
“If you’re sick, you shouldn’t just take something to mask your symptoms. You’re still sick, and you can still spread those things. And that includes everything from shigella to influenza,” he says. “You're not really doing anybody any good by pushing through it and showing up to work sick.”
If you suspect you have shigella or any other gastrointestinal disease, please consult your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.