By Glenn Ellis
During the current coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that we wash our hands long enough to sing Happy Birthday two times.
But, were they talking about the traditional version or the Stevie Wonder version? Every black person I know now, and every birthday celebration I’ve been a part of, for years, sings the Stevie Wonder version. The lack of clarity on this by the CDC lets me know that there is a need for different sets of information needed for different communities and cultures (according to their needs and interests) in communicating and providing information during this current epidemic.
According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of adults in the United States have a high level of health literacy. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 adults lack the skills needed to fully manage their health care and prevent disease. Public health officials and the medical community assume patients understand and can manage their own health care. If a patient doesn’t have the literacy skills necessary to comprehend basic words, it is unlikely that he or she will be able to engage with their care, which is typically made up of complex directions and complicated terminology.
That means that on a good day, most have no idea what the basics are for being healthy; not to mention understanding strains of viruses, transmission, and vaccine development, incubation, etc.
Wouldn’t you think that at some point in this current coronavirus crisis, government or public health officials would have provided us with a basic understanding of exactly what viruses are; how they work; and why they are so potentially deadly?
Let me give it a try:
A virus is a tiny, infectious particle that can reproduce only by infecting a host cell. Viruses “commandeer” the host cell and use its resources to make more viruses, basically reprogramming it to become a virus factory.
Viruses prey upon all living organisms, turning them into virus Xerox machines.
Unlike a bacterium or a cell of an animal, a virus lacks the ability to replicate on its own. A virus does contain some genetic information critical for making copies of itself, but it can’t get the job done without the help of a cell’s “duplicating” equipment, borrowing enzymes and other molecules to create even more virus.
Even though the smallest viruses are only about one-millionth of an inch long, they live up to their Latin namesake – poison. They are capable of infecting and hijacking a human body, creating health hazards as minor as the common flu and as disastrous as the AIDS epidemic.
How Many Viruses
Now, let’s tackle one of the basic questions many people have. How many different viruses are there on planet Earth?
Seems like every time we turn around, there’s a “new” virus circulating around the globe. Scientists then start scrambling to identify it and find a treatment and/or vaccine for it. Invariably, this leads to everything from outright fear to conspiracy theories! In the absence for more (and sometimes different) messaging to targeted populations, controlling the spread of the virus and protecting people will continue to be an uphill climb.
Let me just remind some and inform others; there are far more viruses on this planet than there are people! You can’t see them or feel them, but millions of airborne viruses are wafting around you each day, and billions more microbial travelers are descending everywhere on Earth, after riding air currents around the world.
Think about this: Scientists estimate that there are roughly 1,031,103,110 viruses at any given moment on earth. If you were somehow able to wrangle up all 1,031,103,110 of these viruses and line them end-to-end, your virus column would extend nearly 200200200 light years into space. To put it another way, there are over 10 million times more viruses on Earth than there are stars in the entire universe.
We didn’t always have the need as a society to be reminded of such fundamental hygiene practices. I remember as a kid, coming in the house after playing outside with my friends. The very first thing I would hear would be, “wash your hands”. Hygiene and family/community protection were second nature. Without any empirical data, I have to wonder if there is a connection between the loss of this general consciousness in our communities and the increase in both the rise of drug resistant bacteria and the rise of deadly viruses.
At the end of the day, with proper information delivered to respective communities based on their unique needs and abilities, we will find out that the basic behaviors needed to stay healthy, in general, are the same behaviors we should all be adopting in the face of any viral epidemic, including coronavirus.
Washing your hands; Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; stay home if you are sick: we all know the advice on protecting ourselves from the coronavirus.
Oh yeah, you only need to wash your hands long enough to sing the Stevie Wonder version of Happy Birthday once!
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com.