The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist



A Trifecta Coda To Antibiotic Awareness Week

Hey everyone…

I know it’s been some time since I wrote here. For more on why, check out my front page.

Last week was a special time for those working in public health.  It was the first…


After 70 years of knowing bacteria can become resistant to these life-saving drugs, the world has taken notice.  You may have seen and heard headlines in the media over the last week discussing antibiotics. The situation has become a crisis as we face what is known as the post-antibiotic era.

But what exactly does that mean? Perhaps this might help:


This is just in the United States – worldwide, the number is far greater.

The statistics are frightening and the risk for troubles are growing.  But while the message about antibiotic resistance spreads, some of the more valuable information has been left unsaid.

Now that Antibiotic Awareness Week is over, I wanted to add a coda to the event. I wanted to bring attention to the issue by going into the science of the issue and show some of the latest work describing just how resistance comes about, what we can do in the present, and a look to the future.

popsci-resistanceThe Complexity of Antibiotic Resistance

First, my Popular Science column explores how antibiotic resistance comes about. It’s all about a word used quite often in ecology:  fitness.  When a bacterium comes into contact with an antibiotic, it may die but it may also find a way to survive. Depending on the drug, the fitness differs, even for the same bacterium.  This reveals how dynamic resistance is as a whole and why it is so difficult to prevent.  After all, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack.

mechanismThe Ways Antimicrobial Peptides can kill bacteria

My Huffington Post Canada column takes a different look at the problem by looking forward to the future. Because resistance to antibiotics is so hard to tackle, the best way to approach it is to look for alternative measures.  One of the best options is called an antimicrobial peptide, or AMP.

These molecules are simple in design and extremely effective at killing bacteria. The supply could be endless as almost every species on Earth produces them. All we need to do is go hunting for them and then test them in the lab. Though it may take some time, AMPs may be the answer to antibiotics and may one day become the treatment of choice.

Finally, I wanted to take a completely different perspective on antibiotic resistance not seen in the news. For this, I teamed up with two great video experts, Jay Trout and Sean Webb. Together, we put a short 2:22 video together on where you can find antibiotic resistance and what you can do to help prevent the post-antibiotic era.

As you’ll see, there are three easy ways you can make a difference.  After all, we all play a role in stalling the approach of the post-antibiotic era.  We can all do our part.

For those wondering, the video is in Standard Definition so anyone with a slow internet stream can still watch it. If you are looking for an HD version, just let me know.

Antibiotic resistance will continue to be a problem for a very long time. But knowing the trifecta past, present, and future will ultimately help us to achieve the goals of Antibiotic Awareness Week. We cannot lose our ability to use antibiotics…at least not yet.  Let’s make sure we are all helping to make a difference.

As always, would love to know your thoughts.



The Science Behind Mom’s Cold and Flu Remedies…

Hey everyone,

It has been quite the week for good germs.

First, a story coming out of Australia revealed how the use of one particular probiotic strain, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, can help to alleviate peanut allergies.  Although the paper is not open access, you can read the summary of the study by clicking on the photo/link below.

untitled (2)

The other story making headlines was the impact of probiotics on mental health. For the last decade, trials have shown the benefit of good germs for the mind. The can help keep the mind calm as well as reduce stress and anxiety levels.  Now it seems Canadian researchers are performing clinical trials to determine the benefit of taking probiotics instead of prozac.

I spoke on this earlier in January with the CBC and the producer it was very well received. Some have asked for a link to the broadcast and I’m happy to say you can hear the segment below.


It’s such a pleasure to see the benefit of good germs in the news but as we all know, there are microbes that cause us misery including cold and flu viruses.  Hygiene and social distancing (stay home when sick) are great ways to prevent illness.  Yet, at one time or another, most of us find ourselves victim to the sniffles, coughs, aches and pains.

When we get sick, a trip to the drug store is the usual course of action. But there are more natural ways to fight the bugs and regain our health. Many are traditional in nature and they differ depending on one’s background.  These remedies are homegrown and range from the reasonable to the extreme – mustard plaster anyone?  But one thing is for sure: most of them work.

On Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss these remedies with the radio program, Ontario Today. The goal was to reveal scientifically how these remedies worked and why they are sometimes as good as modern medicine.

For the next two hours – on air and online – I was treated to dozens of examples originating from all over the world.  Although I’d heard of many in the past, some were quite simply out of this world. Yet, they all worked and the science could prove why.

Essentially, a home remedy should accomplish at least one of three goals.

1. Reduce the level of inflammation, which is a consequence of infection

2. Improve blood flow to shift the body from lethargy to action 

3. Utilize antimicrobial properties contained in the remedies to kill viruses  

As each one was brought up, the science became clear either through mention of the ingredients or through the overall results.  All I had to do was classify them and when possible within time constraints, provide a mechanism.

If you want to check out the discussion, you can head to the Ontario Today website. Both the radio and online portions are there.


It was such a fantastic time for me because of the two-way conversation between scientists. Each caller was a scientist (or a representative of one, usually their mothers or grandmothers).  We had a collaborative conversation.  Then there was the passion expressed by each contributor. The experience was akin to a scientific conference where researchers are eager to share their findings with the rest of the community.

I’ll end by asking if you have any old style remedies you want to share. If so, put it in the comment section below. I’m sure people would love to hear how you go about fighting the cold and the flu.

I know I would…

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.

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.

A Germ Wars Webchat…


The webchat went extremely well!  A special ‘Thank You’ to participant “Diane G.” for sharing her longtime support.  People like her give me even more reason to continue what I am doing.  If you missed it, you can read the text here:

My interview with CBC Ottawa Morning is now up.  You can listen to it here:

Tuesday’s story on kids and germs is now up.  Watch it here:


Hi everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here although I hope you have all been enjoying my articles with the Huffington Post.  It continues to be a blast and I am eternally grateful for all the positive feedback I have received.

This week, CBC Ottawa has been running a series called Germ Wars and the great David Gerow took me on a wild journey around Ottawa where we went on the hunt for germs.

The series started yesterday and even featured a cool Germ Quiz which has garnered some very interesting comments.  The series continued today with a discussion on kids and germs and will conclude tomorrow with a story on pets and germs.

Now here’s the fun part…

Tomorrow, Wednesday October 24, at Noon EDT, I’ll be taking questions from the public during a one hour webchat.  You can head to the site then and ask anything relating to germs, hygiene and health.  The link is:

I hope you can find some time to get involved in the discussion.  Based on what I have already heard from people who have seen the series and taken the quiz, it will be a lively time.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Happy #handhygiene Day!

It’s May 5th and the world is celebrating!

(yes, it’s Cinco de Mayo, but it’s also…)


Or, as I like to call it:  #handhygiene Day!

The original reason for this day was to help prevent infections in health care activities worldwide.  While others and myself have expanded the scope to include any hand hygiene activities, the WHO still keeps its focus on making some of the worst offenders…doctors and other health care professionals…get with the message and start to help rather than hinder health.

With that, here are a few ways to learn a little more about the importance of #handhygiene and to engage others in discussion, debate and of course, silly photo sharing!

1. Press Release
Here’s a great press release that offers a little more insight into why Clean Your Hands Day exists and perhaps a few pieces of data that some might not want to know.

Click for more

2. Twitter Feed
If you take a peek to the right of this page, you’ll notice my twitter feed.  I’m working to share the seven important points on #handhygiene.  There are some fundamentals that simply need to be known to stay safe anywhere.  I hope you check out my feed – or just click here – and enjoy

3. Share YOUR story!
I know that each and every one of us has a story to tell about how #handhygiene has helped us in one way or another.  I have several although perhaps my favorite occurred about 15 years ago in a land quite far away:

It was 1997 and I was deep in the Southern regions of Turkey on a tour tracing back the history of our civilization (hey, I’m kinda into that stuff!).  The tour bus came to a stop at a convenience stand that acted as a grocery, restaurant and pit stop.  After picking up some lokum in the grocery and some elma chai in the resto, I went for the pit stop.  Let’s just say that our concept of a toilet is different there.

(they lose a dimension it seems).

It was one of my first times working with a 2-D toilet and it didn’t go well.  I won’t get into details but I was thankful that there was a hose running nearby.

I had ‘finished my business’ I noticed that there was no sink.  When I ventured back to the stand, I asked for soap and water (sabun ve su) and was met with a curious glance.  A moment later, the nice gentleman revealed a bottle with a yellow liquid inside.  He presented it to my nose and I noticed that it was a lemon scented perfume.  It was a nice thought but it wasn’t about to help.

Back when I was a child, my mother had come up with a great formulation to stop the the spread of infections.  It was a combination of 70% rubbing alcohol and 10% glycerin.  The formulation had been used for decades ‘under the radar’ as a means to prevent infections in the field.  For me, the mixture had been a hand saver on many occasions throughout my school and university years and it was going to be nearby during any trip.

So, with a nod to the gentleman, I went back to the bus, found my backpack and took out a small bottle containing the mixture.  That moment of knowing that you are safe is unlike any other.  At that moment, I put the that bottle in my pant pocket and decided that for as long as I live, I’ll never be unprepared again.

It’s my prop de vivre! :)

Okay, now it’s your turn!  Share your story on how #handhygiene has helped you stay safe in the comment box below and I’ll share it with the rest of the Twitterverse!

4. Share your photo
Everyone loves a great photo!  Now it’s your turn to share your #handhygiene photo with the world.

  1. Take a photo of handwashing, sanitizer use, teaching your kids, teaching your parents, and so on.  Show your passion for staying clean!
  2. Share it on the social media platform of your choice.
  3. Tell me about it and I’ll post it here.
  4. Have fun!!!

All right, it’s time for me to sign off and spread the sanitizer!  Have a fantastic #handhygiene day and I look forward to reading your stories and seeing your photos.

Happy #handhygiene Day to you all!

Tomorrow is #handhygiene day!!!

It’s that time of the year again and I couldn’t be happier.

Two years ago, I started #handhygiene in support of the World Health Organization’s SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands campaign to improve hand hygiene in health care worldwide.

Since then, #handhygiene has grown to include every aspect of health and hygiene from the sublime to the absurd.  The hashtag is now listed with the Healthcare Hashtag Project and continues to move ahead without any sign of slowing.

Ultimately, I have to thank people such as Barry Colpitts (@Colpittsb), Patrick Boshell (@DebMedProgram & @Deb_Canada), Louise Taillon (@EnviroWeezy), the Canadian Patient Safety Institute (@Patient_Safety), Michelle Forman (@APHLNews), Lana Targett (@LanaTargett) and our very own handwashing superhero, the Mighty Bubble (@Mighty_Bubble) for making #handhygiene work every day of the year.

There have been hundreds of others who have contributed over the years (some you can see above) and I am grateful to each and every one of them for finding room for #handhygiene somewhere in the 140 characters allowed (it’s not easy!).

Finally, I am truly grateful to the people who inspired #handhygiene in the first place.

World Health Organization.  

To Christy and Sari, I am honoured that you’ve taken the time to notice the hashtag, the work that we are all doing and to share your plans and materials with The Germ Guy.

Now for this year’s #handhygiene day…

I’ll be sending out messages from the WHO pointing out why we celebrate this day and why we need to keep focusing on how to keep our patients safe.  I’ll be posting to Twitter, Facebook and of course here on my blog.  I hope that you take the time to read, share, retweet and comment.

One final note – if you have any personal stories, concerns or ideas, be sure to put them here.  I’ll be sharing them with the people at the WHO in the hopes that they will continue to keep record of the realities that exist and how we can best move forward in safety, health and of course, #handhygiene.

Until tomorrow…


Ever seen something in the media that just makes you smile?

Today, I had that moment.  Take a look at the following advertisement for a local newspaper.

Do you see it?  Way down in the bottom right hand corner.

Yup, it’s Germs.

The message is simple:  germs are easy to share although the value of sharing isn’t all that great.

Now that is a great message for hygiene!  Well done Metro!

(and yes, I know you’re trying to increase circulation but c’mon, this is just fabulous!!!)

Oh, and if you are extra observant, you may see that sharing germs is apparently more valuable than sharing porcupines.  Why?  Let’s just say that I would prefer not to delve into that controversy.  

Are you a #handhygiene hero?

I don’t normally like to send readers to quizzes – I know I hate them – but this one actually made me both smile and think.  It’s called…

(yes, I know…inventive)

Don’t let the title fool you though.  It is NOT easy!

Before you tackle the quiz, I just want to say thanks to QuickMedical for showing me the quiz and allowing me to show the questions.  Also, the cool graphic above comes from the Canadian Patient Safety Institute, which is another great resource for #handhygiene information and the organization behind

The link to the answers is below but I would ask that you give it a try first.  Some may not be relevant to your day to day activities but overall, it’s a great way to test your #handhygiene knowledge.

Here’s the quiz:

1. After taking a patient’s blood pressure, the doctor or nurse should wash their hands. True or False.

2. Wet or damp hands spread 1000 times more germs than dry hands.
True or False.

3. In the 1960’s rinsing hands with antiseptic was believed to be less effective than hand washing. True or False.

4. According to CDC the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to clean our hands.
True or False.

5. Only 75% of female and 60% of male middle and high school students washed their hands after using the bathroom.
True or False.

6. Hand sanitizer is not as effective in germ control as hand washing.
True or False.

How do you think you did?  Well, click on the link below and find out the answers!

If you feel really excited about your score, let me know in a comment.  I’ll be sure to let everyone know that you are a #handhygiene hero!

Remember when…?

In a few hours, the New York Giants will face off against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.  We all know that this is going to be a great match not only because of the Manning-Brady battle to come, but also because this is the rematch of Super Bowl XLII in 2008 when the Giants put an end to the Patriots’ perfect season and won the prize.

For me, February 2008 brings back another memory.

It was my first ever live appearance on CTV Ottawa as the “Germ Guy”

Over the last 4 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to grow from the once-every-few-months appearances on the News at Noon to over 10 million views combined between the news media, the press, radio and the internet.  I can honestly say that I know what it feels like to be the 2008 Giants…the epitome of underdogs yet somehow finding a way to win.

Germ discussions are now commonplace, #handhygiene is continually active and I receive about one media call a week.  It’s an amazing feeling, especially considering my choice of topic!  But I realize that I could never have done any of this without the support, encouragement and views of everyone out there reading this post.

So, as we move closer to the big game and the release of my ads, let me just say thanks again for helping me get to this place and I look forward to even bigger things to come in the future.


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