We’re getting down to it. What’s the scientific basis for a lot of advice that’s being given out as if its uncontroversial. Like washing hands. Or shaking hands is the way flu viruses are passed around. From Helen Branswell’s usual superior reporting:
Might we all be a little healthier this cold-and-flu season if we abandoned the handshake culture? With mounting concern about a possible influenza pandemic and growing awareness of the economic costs respiratory ailments exact through absenteeism, some people are wondering precisely that. (Branswell, Canadian Press)
Makes a lot of sense.
Those foreign fingers could be coated with microbes waiting to hitch a ride on your own.
Next stop: the vulnerable mucous membranes in your nose or mouth, or surrounding your eyes. Perfect portals for viral invasion.
“There’s no question a lot of viruses – flu viruses, cold viruses – can be transmitted on hands. No question about it,” says Dr. Andrew Simor, an infectious diseases expert at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
So it’s plausible it can happen. But does it?
Odd as it may seem, the science on this isn’t well charted. Despite the fact that these viruses predictably inflict illness on a fair slice of the population year after year, scientists aren’t clear what part of spread is attributable to which behaviours.
Does sneezing without covering the mouth spread germs more effectively than sneezing into a hand or sleeve? Is touching a bus pole more of an infection risk than gripping an extended hand? Would wearing gloves all season guarantee a cold-and-flu free winter?
No one knows.
As several experts have observed, countries that don’t shake hands — Japan, for example, where greeting is done by bowing — [correction: the word don't was omitted here initially] have less respiratory disease. On the other hand, the Japanese environment is different in many ways besides greeting customs. As an argument, it isn’t very persuasive except to say that whatever role handshaking plays, it isn’t overwhelmingly powerful. The strongest argument for refraining from this deeply seated custom, is it probably wouldn’t hurt.
Not the strongest recommendation, but good enough. As long as you don’t get hysterical about other people shaking hands.