Health News Digest

November 27, 2006

Never Heard Of Fomites? You’d Better Learn About Them!

Washing hands

By  Michael D. Shaw

OK. So what’s a fomite? A fomite is any object that may be contaminated with infectious organisms and serve in their transmission. If this seems obscure, think of the word “foment.”

These inanimate objects carry germs that cause infection, acting as one of the most common ways that people—children in particular—get sick. In fact, illnesses that spread by droplet transmission, fecal-oral transmission, or contact transmission often do so by means of fomites. And yet, most people have never heard of this word, nor do they educate themselves about the very objects—the cutting boards, kitchen sponges, toothbrushes and cups; the ordinary devices of modern life—that, when exposed to bacteria and unsanitary conditions, heighten the risk of serious infection for countless individuals.

Germs can survive on fomites for minutes, hours, or even days in some cases, thus proving that we need to safeguard ourselves from these sorts of risk and further promote the cause of proper hygiene. Consider the scale of this problem within the context of the objects that surround us. Tissues, diapers, hairbrushes, forks, knives, spoons, and paper towels, among many others, are fomites.

Bear in mind that fomites can also provide an opportunity to disrupt the spread of infection, provided we recognize and avoid them. At the very least, we should disinfect these objects or clean our hands after touching them. Too few people recognize that simple hand washing is perhaps the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to guard against common viral and bacterial infections.

For example, diseases that typically spread by means of fomites include the common cold, cold sores, conjunctivitis, hand-foot-mouth disease, influenza, lice infestation, meningitis, pinworms, diarrhea, and strep infections. Unfortunately, in health care settings, the situation can be far worse:  Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found on blood pressure cuffs, dietary trays, intravenous pumps, stethoscopes, utility room sinks, bathroom doors, and within sink drains in patient rooms. Fomites and pathogens are just about everywhere!

Still, many of these potential infection scenarios are preventable. Improved infection control procedures in all areas of health care, alongside improved hygiene in the home (especially among small children), can dramatically lessen the spread of fomite-based infections. Consider, for instance, the emphasis on hand washing. As noted, health care experts generally cite hand washing as the single most effective way to prevent the transmission of disease.

“This [hand washing] is one health care infection control measure that has successfully spread throughout the community,” said Julie Gerberding, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and formerly acting deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID). “Good hygiene in general, and sterilization and disinfection in particular, are other standards that began largely in hospitals and have become widely used elsewhere. And we’re always looking for others.”

Here’s more from the CDC on hand washing.

In the health care setting, hand washing can prevent potentially fatal infections from spreading from patient to patient, and from patient to health care worker and vice versa. In the home, it can prevent infectious diseases such as diarrhea and hepatitis A from spreading from family member to family member and, sometimes, throughout a community. Hand washing is particularly important before eating and cooking, after using the bathroom, or after touching animals, including family pets.

Common sense and good hygiene can go a long way toward neutralizing the threat posed by fomites. But, we need to take this challenge seriously. Otherwise, we compromise our own health and the health of those close to us.