Technology goes viral, literally

Oct. 21, 2010, 2:04 a.m.
Technology goes viral, literally
Two students examine an iPod interestedly. (ANDREW STILES/The Stanford Daily)

With the onset of flu season comes a new way to transfer illnesses–prized electronic devices, including iPhones, Blackberrys and similar gadgets.

A recent study co-authored by Stanford University graduate student Timothy Julian found that about 20 to 30 percent of viruses are transferred from the glass, like that of touch-screen interfaces, to fingers. This adds just one more way for students to catch the flu or other diseases.

“Our research study originally looked at how well viruses transfer,” Julian said, “because we don’t know how important different modes of transfer are for communicable infectious diseases like influenza, the common cold and gastrointestinal diseases.”

Julian said diseases like influenza are passed through surfaces and airborne particles, but they didn’t know how well surfaces transferred these diseases. All results were from lab-based data; volunteers seeded their hands with bacteria phage virus, then touched glass surfaces. The amount of virus left on the fingertips or transferred to the glass represented the transferability of the virus.

As he discovered, glass is a very effective fomite, or object capable of transferring infectious agents. The germs from the glass touch-screens get onto fingers or other body parts, which in turn poses serious health risks, as there is a high probability that these viruses go directly to the nose and mouth, the most direct pathways to infection.

The practical implications of his study extend to many commonly used surfaces and items, including touch-screen devices. If someone coughs on his or her hand and then borrows a phone, the chances of transferring that disease increase exponentially. This danger is not reserved specifically to touch-screens; glass was simply used as a proxy in the experiment, and the results could potentially be extended to doorknobs, toilet flush handles and countertops.

Yann Meunier of the Stanford School of Medicine Health Improvement Program added general tips to reduce the spread of pathogens.

“It is easiest to catch diseases in public places,” he said. “There are people coughing and sneezing at concerts, conferences and sports events. Transmission of germs is within 6 feet, so stay away from sick people.”

He also added that general precautions include “washing hands, covering coughs with elbows, wearing warm clothing [viruses are easier to catch when weakened from the cold], eating well, sleeping well and having basically a sound lifestyle.”

If students are already sick, “stay home for 24 hours after the fever has subsided and then go back to work or classes,” Meunier suggests. “If you can, have a separate bedroom or bathroom, stay in bed, and get a lot of fluid because the body loses water and salt. Don’t share food or dishes with others. Viruses can stay alive for hours outside the body.”

He notes that studies have shown the virus still alive after 17 days. Julian agrees.

“My personal recommendations if you’re already sick are to stay home until you feel better, because it’s better to stay than get others sick,” he said.

In regard to touch-screens specifically, it never even occurred to some students that they could be potential vehicles for spreading germs.

“I’ve never thought about it,” says Brianna Griffin ‘11, “but I don’t like it when sick people touch any of my stuff. I am fully in favor of Lysol-ing.”

Julian couldn’t agree more.

“If you have to go out, make sure you’re washing your hands and wash surfaces. If you’re specifically concerned about devices, use screen replacements or alcohol wipes.”

Contact Vivian Shen at [email protected].

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