Exploring Self-Actualization (and Germs)

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have had the ability to share my views with the public through the media.  Yet even more fulfilling have been the one on one interactions with people who approach me to ask me questions about germs and our relationship with them.

But one question recently offered me an opportunity to explore our bond with germs on a deeper scale.  It was a short one with an even shorter answer but opened up a discussion I never thought I would have.

The question:  “Why do you want us to have a better relationship with germs?”

My answer: “Self-actualization.”

The quizzical look on the person’s face revealed the expectation of a different response but as we ventured further into the topic, a different perspective was unveiled.

Self-actualization is a relatively new term in the human lexicon, based on a branch of philosophy called “Organicism”, which is still best outlined in a text from 1903 called L’hérédité et les grands problèmes de la biologie générale. The essence of this theory was fairly simple yet the implications were profound:

“…life, the form of the body, the properties and characters of its diverse parts, as resulting from the reciprocal play or struggle of all its elements, cells, fibres, tissues, organs, which act the one on the other, modify one the other, allot among themselves each its place and part, and lead all together to the final result, giving thus the appearance of a consensus, or a pre-established harmony, where in reality there is nothing but the result of independent phenomena.”

While “organicism” was enough to placate a number of theorists, for researchers such as neuropsychologist, Kurt Goldstein and psychologist Abraham Maslow, this definition wasn’t enough.  An individual had to be aware of how all the different parts worked together to bring about a healthier self…or as they coined it, self-actualization.

Both researchers set out on a path to identify just how we could be more self-actualized. Goldstein took a medical approach focusing on language while Maslow took a humanistic one.  Both, however, came up with similar conclusions:

In order to have a better life, we must first identify the individual parts that
make up our lives and then figure out how these parts work together.
More importantly, there is a need to understand whether the relationship
can be changed by outside influences.

From a biological perspective, Maslow offered a rather intriguing look at how self-actualization works in our daily lives.  His target was not some abstract component of behaviour but rather one that has become all the rage in the health world:  Vitamin D.

Back in 1973, in his book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow noted that Vitamin D is a needed nutritional supplement to keep babies from catching colds and suffering other illnesses.  Deprivation not surprisingly led to sickness.  Replacing the vitamin with a poor surrogate led to the same problem.  Essentially, in order to live a happy and healthy life, one needed to ensure that the body (and the mind) were supplied with proper supplements and not subjected to either deprivation or an unsuitable replacement.

In essence, by changing one component of a healthy life in a negative way, the entire existence suffers.

Up until a few decades ago, this theory may have had little in common with the world of germs.  After all, for most of history, germs have been our enemies.  But with the identification of good germs, probiotics, and the microbiome, our view of the microbial world has shifted.  Only a small percentage are truly enemies while the majority are either beneficial or even essential to a healthy life.

Today, we know that health is directly related to germs.  The makeup of our gut microbiota can influence a number of different health factors, from body weight, to management of chronic conditions to psychological state.  While we continue to learn from researchers, the trend is unmistakable.  Much like Vitamin D, germs are a necessary part of our existence and if we are deprived of them or worse, given improper surrogates, our happiness and health is in jeopardy.

But self-actualization is more than just knowing, it is also acting.  No matter how much you might know about Vitamin D, if you don’t take the supplement or get some sunlight, the knowledge will do you no good.  The same exists with germs.

Unfortunately, for most people, that is a problem as there is almost no availability of information on how to keep a good rapport with our microbial counterparts (although The Germ Code is available for pre-sale).  This gap leaves many with questions, concerns and in some cases health issues that might be managed or resolved by simply changing the relationship.

As The Germ Guy, I try to fill that gap the best way I can. Promoting the use of good germs and means to avoid the bad ones is only the beginning. Bringing light to new revelations in the scientific literature increases awareness; highlighting new trends helps individuals decide on beneficial actions; and linking germs to some of our most popular cultural phenomena brings the microbial world closer to our reality.  It’s all in the name of helping self-actualization and bringing about a happier and healthier life.

The talk led to some thinking on the part of the asker and ended with another form of self-actualization.  This person, who is an expert in a different field of science, decided to start an expert blog. The goal, like mine, would be to help people self-actualize in that specific scientific realm.  I was thrilled.

I also learned one other aspect of self-actualization that I hadn’t given much thought.  By acting on our own motivation and striving to better one’s life (and perhaps the world’s), we can also inspire others to do the same.  While my work will always focus on germs, I am happy to know that the impact reaches far beyond the microbiome and into people’s motivation.  That in itself is perhaps the highest honour.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Posted in Commentary | 1 Comment

A Germy View of the Situation in Egypt

Like millions of others worldwide, I’ve been paying close attention to the events happening in Egypt.  For the last two and a half years, the country has experienced what can be best described as a sociopolitical roller coaster ride.  The 2011 Arab Spring to oust Hosni Mubarak was regarded as one of the most powerful public movements yet paled in comparison to the current unprecedented gatherings to protest the now-deposed President, Mohamed Morsi.  Whatever your political view, you cannot argue that what has happened in this small corner of Africa has been historical.

Yet, while this movement on a human scale may seem rare if not unique, the same type of struggle often occurs in the microbial world, particularly in the human gut.

When happy and healthy, the gastrointestinal tract is colonized with a combination of helpful microbes that work together to help digest food, balance the immune system and even send signals to the brain that all is good.  Yet, when another type of microbe ventures in, such as norovirus, Salmonella or C. difficile, a struggle ensues.  The outcome, much like political strife, can happen in one of three ways.

In the case of norovirus, as anyone who has suffered this infection knows, the result is akin to a pillage, sending the gut and the body politic into turmoil within hours.  The virus metaphorically scorches the gut leaving it almost uninhabitable.  After the virus has completed its horrific task, usually 48 to 72 hours, it leaves the body in search of its next conquest.  The gut, however, cannot heal as quickly and may need weeks if not months to heal, recolonize with good bacteria and eventually return to a content state.

For Salmonella, the battle is like an insurgence that goes back and forth until one side wins.  If the pathogen is strong enough and in high enough numbers, the good bacteria are overwhelmed, being killed off or ousted from the body as diarrhea.  The gut countryside becomes a Salmonella state ensuring that the microbes are fed well and thrive.  Eventually, as the body recognizes the problem and learns to fight the pathogen, a process that usually takes no more than a few weeks, the Salmonella are beaten down by both the immune system and any newly introduced fighters, such as antibiotics and/or probiotics and eventually cast out of the body.  The healing process takes some time, perhaps weeks, but because the landscape wasn’t entirely decimated, there can be a rapid return to normal life.

Opportunism is the best way to describe C. difficile. Normally, this bacterium is harmless and cannot establish any kind of presence in the gut, even though we are exposed to it fairly regularly in the community.  Yet, when a battle in the gut has taken place, such as an infection followed by antibiotics, there is a chance that there will be no clear winner – the gut will be left relatively bare.  C. difficile can take hold of this opportunity and start to form its own colonies.  However, much like an opportunistic dictator who takes over after a war, the bacteria makes its own decrees regardless of the state of the country.

The bacterium releases a toxin that can kill anything in its path.  Over time, it forms its own castles in the gut, known as pseudomembranes.  Also, due to the lack of a proper connection with the body, it renders the entire person in a state of illness.  Diarrhea is common, pain can be at times unbearable and eventually, in the weak, the only salvation is death.

What makes C. difficile so problematic is that once it has laid down its foundations, it is very difficult to remove.  No matter what kind of fight might ensue, the bacterium fights until the bitter end and will not give up its reign until it has been killed off completely.  While possible, it’s not easy on the patient and can lead to even more troubles down the line.

As for Egypt, the situation is different; the changes that have occurred have been for the most part non-violent and mediated by the people.  While there have been deaths and other crimes against humanity recorded, for the most part, the process has been peaceful. In a microbial sense, the people of Egypt are akin to probiotic bacteria in the gut.

Individuals want to have a healthy and prosperous country and will do what they can to preserve a beneficial state.  In 2011, these probiotic people amassed in Tahrir Square to protest years of unhappiness under Mubarak.  In 2012, they allowed another type of bacterium to enter the fold – Morsi – along with his supporters.  However, much like what happens in cases of irritable bowel disease (IBD), the presence of these new players was less than beneficial, causing a form of dysbiosis.  The body economy suffered, the psychological state worsened and relationships with other bodies became sour.

But as seen in many cases where IBD is managed and resolved, the public version of probiotics once again came to the rescue.  A new and even more powerful rise occurred.  Through their protest, a signal was sent to the immune system – the military – to do what is right and attempt to restore balance.  While there may soon be calm again, much like the medical state, the political state is far from being at peace and the people may once again come out into the streets if displeasure occurs.

The world is a continually dynamic and there are so many ways that our social, political, economic and even interpersonal worlds shift and change over time.  But the Earth is in many ways no different than each and every human body.  One can take a closer look inside at the microbiome, the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine system and others to not only identify ways to relate, but also to see how outcomes may turn out.

In the case of Egypt, while resolution may be a long time away, I am sure that as long as the probiotic people are out in force, the entire country will stay in at least some kind of balance – as long as they don’t have to worry about another norovirus, Salmonella, or C. difficile.

As always, I would love to know your thoughts and whether you know of other germy models for sociopolitical events.

Posted in Commentary, Infectious Disease, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Most Important Day of the Hand Hygiene Year Is Coming…

A few years back, when I started #handhygiene as a hub for all information on Twitter dealing with handwashing and sanitizer use, I had hoped to develop a community that would openly and freely express its passion for keeping those hands clean.

In 2013, information on hand hygiene has become a staple on Twitter and grown into other areas of social media to encompass blogs, YouTube sites, Facebook sites such as the Hand Hygiene Project, Pinterest pages, and even Reddit.  Pretty much anywhere you look in social media, you’ll find someone, somewhere has devoted some space to promote and share information and stories on hand hygiene.

But while #handhygiene has been a great start, no organization has a greater impact than the World Health Organization and their SAVE LIVES:  Clean Your Hands campaign, which celebrates annually on May 5th.  I consider this to be the most important day in hand hygiene.

The campaign was initially targeted at healthcare facilities and those who work tirelessly to keep up healthy.  While their work is exemplary in so many ways, there was one problem that continued to affect not only the success of their efforts but also the people who entered these clinics looking for help…

Nosocomial infections or as they are better known as: Health Care Acquired Infections.

Granted, these types of infections have been known for hundreds of years. If they hadn’t been around, we might not have had the introduction of hand hygiene as a practice brought to us by pioneers such as Ignaz Semmelweis and Joseph Lister.  But the problem wasn’t solved by the introduction of more modern hospitals and increased technology.  No matter what may have been implemented to help improve the benefit of the patient (call it quality of care), those pesky infections transferred from hands continued.

The challenges were shown to be even greater when researcher widened the scope from doctors and nurses to well, everybody.  There might have been some issue with a lack of proper adherence to hand hygiene by professionals but that was nothing compared to the rate in the general public.  There was little to deny that while people may profess that they have clean hands, there isn’t many who actually wash them.

Ironically, there was one way to ensure that people (and healthcare workers) washed:


A study conducted a few years back with the intention of determining the actual rate of hand hygiene in the public revealed something a little different.  If someone was being watched, even casually, then that person was more likely to perform handwashing.

With that information out, the answer to all hand hygiene champions was quite simple: peer pressure works!

(Okay, we all knew that thanks to smoking and drinking).

But that realization sparked a new direction for the promotion of hand hygiene from the walls of health care to the open air of the public forum.  Today, champions influence not by sharing statistics and research papers although there are still plenty of those.  Instead, the messages are manifested in calls to those who are tired of (and possibly sick from) a lack of proper adherence to what is the simplest, easiest and most effective way to prevent infection spread.

As May 5th approaches, there is something different going on in social media and it directly involves you, the reader and everyone around you.  While SAVE LIVES focuses on including institutions into a global hand hygiene pledge, the rest of us can take a similar pledge, a personal pledge, to do our best to improve hand hygiene everywhere else.  Best of all, it’s easy to take and there’s not much required afterwards.

All you need to do is:

1. Take the pledge!  

 “I, [YOUR NAME] pledge that I will be a part of a
global movement to improve hand hygiene!”

 2. Wash your hands! 

3. Tell everyone you know about the pledge and let them
know that when you are together, you will be ‘watching them’.
(BTW, it’s cooler if you use Mr. Smith’s voice from the Matrix
check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loinY8MmVq8)

4. Have fun.  

Let’s face it, hand hygiene, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  After all, it is a fun act that can be enjoyed by everyone.  It can calm the soul and offer us a brief retreat from the day to day grind.  It’s simple, inexpensive and yes, goes a very long way to help to save a sniffle and even a life.

So, as we head to May 5th, I invite you to leave me a comment to let me know that you have taken the pledge.

For those of you who are more involved in social media, leave me a Tweet at @JATetro so that I can share it with the world.

As to those who know how to make a short video, post your best “Mr. Smith” impersonation of your pledge to watch and I’ll share it here, on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy Hand Hygiene Day to everyone!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

New City, Same Germy Fun…

Hey everyone,

As some of you may have seen, I’m in the process of moving from Ottawa to Toronto. I’m in T.O. now and starting to settle in.

I’ll have more to say on the move and the reasons for it later but wanted to share the news and also my excitement for what is to come.

If you are in Toronto and want to meet up or have any great places and/or events to share, leave me a comment below.

Have a great week ahead!

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The #H5N1 debate continues…and now EPRC is getting involved

UPDATE! Apparently an hour after this document went live, the White House released a statement that they have a proposed policy.  You can read it here:


You will also notice that the date of release is slated for tomorrow.

Coincidence?  I’ll let you decide…

About this time last year, the research world was embroiled in a mess of apparent apocalyptic proportions.  A group out of the Netherlands and another out of the U.S. had attempted to publish scientific articles that were deemed highly controversial and were for a period of time held back from publication.

The move made headlines and led to some rather interesting headlines in the public and led to an extended debate on the nature of such “dual use” research.  The major battle focused on the need for such apparently risky experimental work.  Those who believed it was necessary focused on the need to keep up with Mother Nature and be ahead of the curve than behind it.  Those who were against it felt that there was simply too much risk associated with the work and that deadly flu strains could either escape or be used for terrorism.

Over the last year, there has been a moratorium on the work with H5N1 in ferrets and other mammals although that ended a few weeks ago.  Yet some labs are still not able to do their work as they await rules and policies from governments.

The policies are designed to:

  1. ensure the work is not only known by the government biosafey and biosecurity organizations
  2. monitor and manage the work to prevent any problems arising from the work or, quite possibly, from the mouths of researchers all too willing to overstate their findings.

At that time, in the role of Coordinator at the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre, I had the opportunity to co-author a white paper on what we felt was needed in such policy.  We passed it around to other researchers and policymakers and had very good feedback.  We felt that it could make a difference and expected to see some hint of our model in these policies.

However, as these policies have yet to emerge, we simply are not sure.

Which is why today, a year after the call for dual use research policy, EPRC has released its white paper to the public.  It focuses on a process known as the Institutional Risk Assessment Process (IRAP although I still prefer iRAP) and deals with the need to have a balanced system of information sharing that welcomes all interested parties – or stakeholders if you wish – to the table.

You can click on the image to get to the website and read the reasoning for putting this document together.  I know that it is a bit intense at times but I hope that the message is conveyed without too much consternation.  I also know this is a bit more of a niche but many have asked me what I do in my real day job.  Well, this will give you a little peek into the fun world in which I work.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Top Germy Tweeter!

Today I was surprised with a lovely message:


The Huffington Post has placed me as one of the
Top 50 Healthy Living and Fitness Tweeters in Canada.

I’m really excited about the honour but have to admit that the road to getting here was not an easy one.

When I first started using Twitter in 2009, I had no idea what I was doing.  I tried a tweet here and there but never really found a groove.  It took a year before I found a reason to tweet and it turned into a passion – you probably know it better as #handhygiene.  The hashtag helped me learn even more about how to use the social media tool and thanks to some very awesome mentors, I gained not only a voice but also a method to use that voice. 

Evangelism – or more specifically Germevangelism.

I have to admit that when I first came up with the term, I wasn’t sure it would take off. But the last year has been a delight and I am proud to be a germevangelist.  So much so that it looks to be the direction of my future.  I’ll share more on that when the time comes.

For now, I hope you don’t mind me sharing my joy and accept my thanks for being there with me over these years.  You’re why I do this…

I would love to hear your thoughts. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Flu Season is Here and the Germs are Spreading Fast!

I was quite interested to hear that the CDC has said that the flu season has come early this year and seems to be “ramping up.”  For me, this seemed like a rather odd statement to make.  After all, right after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York and New Jersey area, I was convinced that the flu would swoop in and cause havoc and pandemonium. It didn’t. Actually, back when Sandy hit at the end of October, the CDC flu map showed relatively little activity.

But since then, as the headlines have said, the flu made a jump in cases and today, it’s sweeping the nation. Rather than tell this to you, I thought I would show it to you.

Thanks to the CDC Seasonal Flu website, there is a map that highlights where flu cases are being reported all over the country.  I’ve compiled the last month and a half summaries and put them into the figure below.


As you can see, the colours represent the level of infection in the different States.  From October 6 to November 24, the rate of flu went from practically nothing to covering over half the country.  Now that is a fast rate! But what does all this mean?  Well…

  1. The flu is coming so be prepared.
  2. If you are going to get the vaccine, make sure you do it soon.
  3. If you know that you will be travelling, make sure that you are aware of the situation and keep yourself at the ready for any signs of infected people (Granted, it’s not The Walking Dead but it’s still a pain to get sick whilst away from home)
  4. This isn’t a pandemic.  This is simply a more rapidly spreading flu that happens every now and then.  We’re not expecting to be plunged back into the days of 2009 when the ‘swine flu’ was around.

Over the coming weeks as we head to Christmas, we’ll learn more about the spread of this virus and whether or not we are going to see a long flu season or one that will burn itself out quickly.  Either way, no one should be overly concerned.  The flu season is as common as the change of the seasons.  Sometimes they happen just as anticipated and other times, they are unpredictable.

The key to staying healthy is to be sure to keep your eye on the great surveillance that is happening (for Canadians, use FluWatch) and be sure to adhere to the advice and recommendations at these websites.

And as always, if you have any questions, just ask them below.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments