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.



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.


The Education of Germs…

I received a note this morning from a colleague, Tim Handorf, at Best Colleges Online.

They have written a rather excellent blog post looking at the places on campus where you might find germs and how to best protect yourself from gaining more than a higher level of education.

I read the article and just have to share it with everyone here.  It gives a rather interesting perspective on day to day life and how each student has to pay as close attention to their health as they do their studies and extracurricular activities.

And besides, where else can you read about the dangers of “Beer Pong”.

Beer Pong

So head on over and enjoy the post:

The 20 Germiest Places on a College Campus

And, as always, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

A Tale of Two Crises: Germs and Economics

It’s been a few weeks since I posted here and I could defend myself by saying that I’ve been working on grant proposals and talking with companies and non-governmental organizations to strategize future social marketing initiatives in local and global health.

I wouldn’t be lying.

But to be honest, there’s been another reason why I’ve been absent. And no, it’s not because I started playing Angry Birds…okay, I have but that’s not the reason.

I’ve been watching the economy.

For about a month (although more importantly over the last two weeks) there has been a focus on the economy unlike anything seen before.  With the so-called ‘debt crisis’ and the ‘political brinkmanship’ being displayed far brighter than any peacock feather, it was almost impossible not to watch.  The S&P downgrade and the global stock market plunges only made the situation apparently more dire and even in some estimations, apocalyptic.

For its part, the media has been doing its best to analyse the situation, keep the news and discussions objective and even trying to find some way to deal with or hide from the outcomes.  Yet whenever a possible diagnosis and solution is identified, the trends change and everyone is left dumbfounded.  At one point, even the greatest minds in economics were forced to admit when it comes to moving out of the crisis:

We just don’t know.”

So, why is this so amazing to me?  It’s not because this is groundbreaking, revolutionary and a start of a whole new way of life.  Quite the opposite.  It’s because, in my estimation, it’s pretty run of the mill stuff…

…for infectious disease.

I believe that anyone who has dealt with an microbiological outbreak, epidemic or pandemic understands what is going through these economics minds and can appreciate their suffering.  After all, the stages of these crises have been similar and in many ways the outcomes have paralleled each other.  And while they may seem worlds apart, as you’ll see from the following elaboration on each stage, they are more closely related than one might think.

1. A warning has been issued that there may be a problem or that one is coming

Germs: the identification of a novel or virulent strain in the environment with the potential to cause disease in humans.

Economics: A prospective outlook in February of debt problems across the globe

2. An trigger event occurs threatens the community

Germs: An index case of the strain has been identified

Economics: In this case, the Greek Default is inevitable

3. Unexpected impact of secondary transmission and virulence 

Germs: More than one person is affected and the route is unknown – morbidity and mortality are suddenly being discussed

Economics: The fear of default spreads to the U.S. and other countries – downgrades are suddenly being mentioned

4. An attempt to inventory the issues 

Germs: Is it transmissible from person to person? Is it hypervirulent?  Is it resistant?

Economics: Is it debt? Is it greed? Is it government?

5. An attempt to rescue the situation is fruitless

Germs: Mass culling of animals may occur without stopping the spread; vaccines may be sped up for rapid delivery; stockpiles of antimicrobial drugs are purchased; masks and other barrier supplies are mass ordered for hospitals and other institutions.  Yet the infections continue to spread.

Economics: Government plans to control the debt are raised; austerity measures are introduced; experts begin to advise clients to be cautious and avoid risk; markets start to increase in volatility.  Yet nothing gets resolved.

* * *

At this point, a situation will change for the better or for the worse.  In better times, the situation will lessen on its own and then allow for a process of remedy, recovery and rehabilitation.  In many instances, such as short-lived outbreaks, like Ebola virus, or in economics, such as the “Flash Crash” of 2010, the best line of defense is passive and to allow the event to burn out on its own, much like a raging fire.

But, if the situation continues to be active, then there’s the likelihood it may worsen.  And if it does, the only means for control may end up being highly unpopular and may even break the people’s confidence and their passivity.

6. The Tipping Point

Germs: A specific percentage of the population is infected and the realization that an outbreak/epidemic/pandemic must be declared.

Economics: The downgrade in the U.S. credit rating.

7. Fallout

Germs: This different for each event.  In the case of SARS, the fallout was the near-destruction of travel to any affected region, almost wiping out Toronto’s tourism industry for 2003.  In the case of H1N1, there was mass confusion about the impact of the virus and that impacted both prevention and vaccination measures.  In the Niagara region in the case of the recent C. difficile outbreak, people went as far as to protest outside the doors of the institutions.  In the general public, there is a general sense that no one is safe, personal security is at risk and everyone has to blame someone else.

Economics:  Ongoing.  There was the global market crash on Monday, there are continuing tensions between the public and governments, and regardless of who steps to the microphone to ease tensions, nothing seems to resolve the issue.  In the general public, there is a general sense that no one is safe, personal security is at risk and everyone has to blame someone else.

8. Resolution

Germs: The agent has become fully characterized, its means of transmission known and control measures have been tested and implemented.  In the case of SARS, this meant a near martial law in the healthcare environment.  In the case of H1N1, it was the shutdown of schools and other areas where crowding may occur.  And, in C. difficile, it was a matter of strict isolation procedures and extreme disinfection practices.

Economics: Not yet been achieved.

If one were to take from the germs experience, short term martial or draconian measures may be needed to stop this pandemic of economic collapse.  Strict financial measures would have to be accepted and the public would be forced to live, at least for a while, knowing that their lives will be different and most probably worse.

And this brings up the one factor that is incredibly important for economics but given less importance in the germs world:

The people’s reaction.

It is almost ironic that in the germs world, where people’s health is the goal, the reaction of the people to the solution is not given much weight.  It is assumed that any measure, no matter how strict, is better than having an entire population suffer.  Think of how many people stood for hours and hours in line to get an H1N1 vaccine that may or may not have been necessary?  When it comes to drastic measures, the term ‘life or death’ really does apply and it is believed that most would choose life, even if it is less comfortable than normal.

In the economic world, it’s a different story.  Life and death is not the issue; it’s financial stability.  And understandably, when one’s financial future is threatened or at least marginalized, it can lead to a different kind of outbreak…

…one that occurs in the streets.

We’ve already seen the riots in Greece and there is a worry that the financial sector may be the next target for the riots in England.  There are still concerns about protests in other countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and even Germany.  And while there have been protests of a peaceful nature in the United States, there is a sense of increased tension that may blow at any time.  It’s a waiting game on a silent time bomb that everyone expects will explode but no one actually knows when.

Whatever resolution is finally achieved, I fear that it won’t be pretty and won’t happen without loss of property, freedoms and possibly, although I hope not, lives.

* * *

The last few weeks have been an adventure in learning for me.  I’ve gained a new appreciation for the economy and how the world’s finances are not all that different from global health.  I honestly believe that we in the microbiological and epidemiological worlds can learn from what we are seeing in order to better our own ability to address adverse events such as outbreaks and pandemics.

In turn, perhaps the economic world can turn to the germs world to learn more about how to stem the tide of these pending problems long before they happen.  Health has been around far longer than money and the lessons learned over the ages can be translated to help identify means to attain rescue and remedy long before it hits the tipping point.  After all, while outbreaks and epidemics occur on a regular basis, pandemics are still few and far between.  And in at least one instance, SARS, a pandemic was actually stopped before it could reach that tipping point.  I believe the economics world could use that experience to help in the future.

Perhaps I’ll put it more succinctly:

If the economic world looked at the current crisis as the germs world did SARS, many of us wouldn’t be in this situation today.

But if the germs world had acted the same way as the economics world has acted recently at the time of SARS, many of us wouldn’t be here period.

Would love to know your thoughts.

Germ Guy, PhD

Today, I was honoured by the Social Media University, Global with an Honorary PhD in Social Media.

My dissertation, “From Lab Rat to Social Media Champion” describes the last 12 years of my work in both traditional and social media to bring perspective, insight and a little bit of entertainment to the public in Ottawa and around the globe.

There are other “Germ Guy” projects afoot such as a potential tour and maybe even a book.  In addition, I’ll be keeping up my work to inform and engage the public (now in both official Canadian languages) and commit to keep everyone posted on the progress, the challenges, the successes and yes, the failures.  After all, as Edison once said,

“If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

But for now, I am just happy to have received this laud and wish to convey my gratitude and appreciation to everyone who participates in the dissemination of knowledge and the engagement of the public towards better health and hygiene.  Without you, I wouldn’t be able to achieve this, or any success.

From the bottom of my germy heart…thank you.

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