Note: I just realized that while I started writing this last week, I never actually posted it. So I'm posting it now!
This term, in addition to the online 2nd year Nutrition course that I teach, I'm TAing for a 3rd year Food Microbiology course. The course uses Problem-Based Learning (rather than lectures), in which students work through problems in small groups and so the TA functions as a group facilitator, helping the group progress through the problem-solving process (rather than being a content expert). So in our group of TAs for this course, there is only one food scientist -- the rest of us are from a variety of programs (nutrition, forestry, soil science, electrical engineering, etc.) and we don't know much about food microbiology. We have a weekly TA meeting where we learn the pertinent details about the case being studied and this past week we got to talking about avian flu and the possibility of an H5N1 pandemic. And just talking about it (like how it's pretty much inevitable that we will have a pandemic, the sheer number of casualties in previous pandemics and how we really can't stop the spread of bird flu unless we want to kill all the wild birds in existence) was enough to freak us all out -- we are all now pretty much terrified to touch any doorknobs, use any public washrooms or, really, even leave our own homes.
The suggestions given to help prevent the spread of microorganisms include: frequent handwashing, dispense the paper towel before you wash your hands (so you don't have to touch the paper towel dispenser after you wash your hands) and then use the paper towel to turn off the tap (rather than touching the tap with your clean hand) and carrying alcohol handwipes with you at all times (no, we're not paranoid... why do you ask?)
The most disgusting thing that I learned in that meeting was that research shows that it would take 24 layers of toilet paper to block transmission of a virus*. Think about it.
I even brought some show-and-tell for my students this week! The previous week we had got off topic and starting talking about our favourite viruses -- we all agreed that Ebola and Dengue are the best (both of which can cause hemorrhagic fevers. Think bleeding from your eyes. Good times.) So this week I brought my stuffed viruses** to show they group. Aren't they cute?
The first one is the virus that causes the common cold, the second one is Ebola and the third one is flu. I got these last year for Christmas. Anyway, in a related story, a few days later I was in a bathroom at school and as I was washing my hands I saw a woman walk out of the stall, press the button to dispense some paper towel before she washed her hands (so I'm thinking, "oh, she must be one of these germophobes"), but then she proceeds to fix up her hair with her hands, *then* washes her hands, dries them with the predispensed paper towel and then uses the paper towel to turn the tap off. That's right, she doesn't want to touch a dirty tap with her clean hands, but she will run her dirty hands through her hair!!!
*Man, I'm glad I'm not the one who did that research!
**Available at www.thinkgeek.com. Where you can buy all things geeky.