A toilet, to most people, is one of the dirtiest places imaginable. But do you know that your computer’s keyboard could actually be dirtier than a toilet? A recent study by microbiologists at the University College of London revealed that computer keyboards harbour more bacteria than a toilet seat.
Every day, our bodies fight trillions of germs from the most unlikely places writes Richard Wetaya . A toilet, to most people, is one of the dirtiest places imaginable. But do you know that your computer’s keyboard could actually be dirtier than a toilet? A recent study by microbiologists at the University College of London revealed that computer keyboards harbour more bacteria than a toilet seat.
The microbiologists deduced that one of the leading causes of dirt on keyboards was users eating food, leaving crumbs at their desk, which encourages the growth of bacteria.
And it is not just keyboards. Many of the things we touch are actually dirtier than a toilet. Abudullah Ali Halage, a lecturer at Makerere University School of Public Health, says recent research has shown that poor hygiene habits, not toilets, account for 75% of Uganda’s disease burden.
On any given day, our bodies fight against trillions of tiny invaders from various contaminated sources within our environment.
“We are products of dirty environments where disease-causing germs easily live and spread. Ignorance makes our situation worse. People should know that it is not only toilets that spread germs.
Though the toilet is dirty, there are many other potential germ carriers, we come across as we go about our daily routines,” Halage says.
That door handle you touch every day at home or at the office could leave you with an illness if you are not cautious.
“Door knobs are invariably touched by many people so they are disseminators of germs. Somebody may wash his or her hands regularly but re-infection is easy,” Rudolf Buga, a microbiologist at the School of Public Health, Makerere, says.
Peter Bwire, a chapati seller in Kampala, touches dirty surfaces, paper bags and old tattered money notes as he makes and sells his chapattis.
Asked if he washes his hands after touching money, he answers: “Few of my clients ask me to wash hands before I serve them. I have also never seen any public health official coming here to caution me on hygiene. All I do is receive money and pack chapatis for my clients,” he says.
Money, like many other items we touch and use every day, can be a hazardous source of contamination. Once it is in circulation, different unclean hands contaminate it with disease causing micro-organisms.
It has never occurred to Bwire that money is a carrier of germs and bacteria. “Most times, the money I get is old, dirty and tattered. Some of it may be clean, but I mostly care about whether it is real or fake,” he says.
“Women are fond of bags, but bags can expose one to infection,” Mbale-based dermatologist, Catherine Onyait says.
“Ladies handbags are constantly looked through, yet they are rarely washed. It is the same hands that then touch different surfaces. The risk of passing on different germs or infections through them is high,” Onyait says.
She adds that leather handbags may have the greatest bacterial infestation. This is because their texture absorbs bacteria like a sponge, providing the ideal conditions for bacteria of all kinds to spread and thrive.
“We touch dirty taxi seats day in, day out, and they are not safe, given the fact that many people use them and they are hardly ever washed,” Buga explains. Before you munch on anything after leaving the taxi or bus, wash your hands with soap first.
“A sneeze or cough sprays a mist of germ-laden droplets in the air and on surfaces or objects that people use during the course of their work, for example, computer keyboards,” Buga explains.
Once a computer keyboard has germs, anyone who uses it runs a risk of catching an infection. As with office environments everywhere, keyboards are often shared among workmates.
This is one of the reasons why your keyboard might have more germs than a toilet seat.
That office coffee and tea cup you are so inclined to could also expose you to germs and bacteria. Trasias Mukama, a public health researcher, says up to 18% of office cups carry thousands of bacteria.
The source of these bacteria, Mukama says, lies in those hard-to-disinfect cleaning sponges and scrubs in the kitchen.
“Before you take your tea or coffee, make sure not only your hands, but your cup or mug is properly washed,” Mukama says. It is preferable to wash cups with hot water and soap or detergent to ward off germs.
While you carry out your transactions at that ATM, watch out not just for thieves, but for germs as well, Buga cautions.
“Because our ATMs are regularly touched by many people yet they are rarely cleaned, you could be running a health risk if you do not wash your hands after using it. Money also has germs on it. To be safe, one can carry a hand sanitiser to rub one’s hands with after using the ATM,” Buga says.
“The average person in Uganda touches their mobile phones more than their chairs. We are often oblivious of the fact that constant phone handling and the heat generated by the phone creates a prime breeding ground for micro-organisms,” Onyait says.
Falling prey to germs becomes easy when you constantly touch that office phone or mobile phone without strict adherence to precaution and infection control practices like regular hand washing.
The swabs of the phone keys, the earpiece and the mouthpiece all serve as reservoirs of bacterial agents or germs.
These germs are easily transmitted onto the finger tips. Not long after, the hands touch the eyes, nose and mouth. Within a few minutes, those organs will be infected and one may eventually fall sick.
The kitchen sink and bathroom
Yes, that kitchen sink crawls with lots of bacteria. Ironically, the bathroom, a place where most people go to tidy up after a long day at work or after an exercise regime, is not the cleanest place.
“The bathroom provides a moist environment for bacteria to grow. It explains why many people easily pick up urinary tract infections and skin-related conditions. We go to the bathroom to get germs off our bodies. In the process of bathing, however, some people get infected instead,” Onyait says.
Shopping trolleys and baskets
Supermarket trolleys could leave us with unclean bills of health. “The many hands that use those trolleys everyday should be the reason you worry about them,” Buga says.
“There are other, often glossed-over objects and surfaces that harbour microbes within our environments. These include light switches kitchen cloths, kitchen taps, handrails, television remote controls and fridge handles.
Many people touch these surfaces every day so there is need to take caution to keep bacteria and illnesses away. Good hygienic practice is the only way to reduce microbial susceptibility,” Buga says.
Staying safe: wash, wash and wash some more
Many unhygienic habits can be broken if people care and educate themselves about basic self-care and hand hygiene improvement.
It is wise to watch out for microbial contaminants within your environment. Ugandans rarely practise positive health habits. Hand hygiene is the simplest and most effective way to reduce the chance of catching infections.
Washing hands reduces one’s toxic exposure and prevents the spread of infections. It keeps bacteria and illnesses away,” Halage notes.
To keep your bag safe from germs dermatologist, Catheine Onyait, says the safest bet is to embrace tidy-up routines like regular bag and hand washing. An alcohol-based sanitising gel or disinfectant swipe comes in handy in decontaminating and preventing the buildup of contamination on bags. There are also protective hygienic covers for handbags that can be attached to the exteriors of the bag.
These covers, Onyait says, are usually made from germ-resistant material capable of preventing dirt, moisture and harmful bacteria from reaching the hand bag and its straps. After getting money out of or inside your bag, wash your hands thoroughly to avoid contamination.
Wash hands after using computer keyboards. For food crumbs, the solution is to shake them out of your keyboard and disinfect the keyboard and mouse at least once a week.
If you have an infection, try to protect others from it. Cover your mouth with disposable tissue when you sneeze or cough.
To rid your phone of bacterial pathogens, disinfect it twice a week with an anti-bacterial wipe. You can carry a disinfectant wipe to clean the trolley handles in the supermarket. Buga says a sanitising gel will also come in handy.
For the kitchen, Buga suggests cleaning the counter and sink at least twice a week with a teaspoon of chlorine bleach and an anti-bacterial product.
“Kitchen solid wastes should be deposited in rubbish bins. The bins should not be left in the food preparatory and cooking areas. Surfaces in contact with food, such as chopping blocks, should also be kept clean and kitchen utensils should be washed with hot water and detergent,” Buga says.
To prevent infections from the bathroom, clean the bathroom with disinfectant once a week. Onyait says.
Ask the expert
QHow can we encourage better hygiene habits among Ugandans?
AThis could be done through provision of facilities or an enabling environment for promotion of hygiene. It can be done by community sensitisation to change people’s knowledge, attitudes and practices.
How true is it to assert that an average toilet could be cleaner than most surfaces and objects we get in touch with?
This is not true. But most surfaces and objects we touch are equally dirty because of constant hand contact.
Is it true that 8% of most infections and communicable diseases are spread through hand contact?
This is true. In Uganda, the percentage is actually higher. Only 28% of Ugandans have access to hand washing facilities.
Apart from washing hands, what are the other ways of preventing infections that come as a result of poor hygiene habits?
Proper bathing will prevent bad odour and bad breath.
You should regularly brush your teeth after meals and clean things you touch. Proper food hygiene, use of personal protective wear like gloves, proper disposal of waste, proper disposal of excreta and maintaining a clean environment are also important practices.
What is the best way to deal with germs in a home or office environment?
Regularly wash and dry your hands while at work, after coughing or sneezing, after using rest rooms and before and after eating.
You should also clean your working environment or surfaces at least once or twice daily, disinfect reusable items (like heavy duty gloves), keep yourself clean all the time, keep your environment clean and use sanitisers after every activity likely to contaminate your hands.
Abudullah Ali Halage, Lecturer at the Makerere University School of Public Health
Your keyboard could be dirtier than a toilet