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Washing hands best defense against bugs that can make us sick

Lessons in germ warfare

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Germs are icky.

But trying to make that bit of information stick in the minds of young children -- the wipe-your-runny-nose-on-your-sleeve, share-the-Popsicle-with-the-dog, mud-pies-for-dessert set -- can be a challenge. After all, it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that even adults caught on to the microbial facts of life.

Nurse Kacey Cooper of Kasilof gives children a vivid lesson about the importance of hand washing, a lesson that is literally hands-on.

Borrowing tools from medicine and biology, she grows bacteria from children's hands in Petri dishes until the microbe colonies are so large they are clearly visible to the naked eye. The resulting colonies, multicolored and slimy, are icky to the max.

"You guys will get to see the germs," she told first-graders at Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof last week.

"That's what we are going to do -- grow germs."

Cooper told the children that germs can make them sick, and dirty hands are the main way germs get spread around. Washing frequently and washing well are the best way for youngsters to keep germs at bay.

It doesn't do much good to wash if you don't wash well, she warned them.

Cooper brought to class a portable, Styrofoam-insulated incubator and a set of dishes containing sterilized germ food: a nutrient mixture of agar gel and sheep's blood. She called up the children in groups, dabbing little finger tips onto the agar. She had children who had washed their hands and those who had not, ones that had just been to the bathroom, rinsers, scrubbers and a few choice scrapings from under grubby fingernails.

The children lined up enthusiastically; some remembered the demonstration from their kindergarten.

"It feels like hard Jell-O," student Makinna Halverson said of the agar.

After the collecting, the plates were put in the incubator for two days.

Cooper and the children talked about all the times people should wash their hands: before eating, before handling food, after coughing or sneezing, after touching animals, after handling raw meat and especially after going to the bathroom.

"A lot of people don't wash their hands after they go to the bathroom. It's disgusting," she said.

"Not all germs are bad," she stressed.

"But even good germs, if there are too many of them or they get in the wrong place, can make us sick."

Much of her lesson contains good reminders for people of any age.

For example, she coached the children on the right way to wash their hands:

n Get your hands completely wet;

n Add a dab of soap about the size of a coin;

n Rub your palms together vigorously to work up a lather;

n Rub the soap all over your hands, including around the back, out to the fingertips and between them by interlacing your fingers;

n Pay extra attention to the fingertips, rubbing them or scrubbing around and under nails;

n Rinse thoroughly, but only after the other steps.

"I can hear those germs. They are wearing off. They are screaming," Cooper told the children, who giggled in reply as they tried out the technique at the classroom sink.

Cooper also pointed out subtle sources of germs.

For example, after washing well, people may get recontaminated instantly from the handle on a paper towel dispenser or a dirty restroom door knob. She recommended that kids dispense the paper towels before washing or with their elbows, then keep the paper towel in hand to open the door knob.

She also cautioned about water bottles, noting that pulling a stopper up and down all day, then sticking the end in your mouth is a great way to move invisible things from your hands to your mouth.

Two days after her initial visit, Cooper returned to the class to check on the bacteria cultures and what the children had learned.

Bacterial colonies, ranging in size from pinprick to nearly a quarter-inch across, dotted the agar plates. They were white, gray and yellow. Fungus, common under fingernails, makes fuzzy circles; the others were slimy bacteria. The yellow ones, she explained, were staph, one type of the "bad germs."

The children viewed them with serious interest and a touch of dismay. They told her they were being far more careful about washing now.

Cooper has applied for a grant to expand the hand-washing project. She would like to do the presentation at other elementary schools and is looking for volunteers, especially nurses, who can do the germ demonstrations as well.

Anyone interested should call Cooper at 283-3218.

The hand-washing project is already bearing fruit. At Tustumena, where she has piloted it, teachers have told her that fewer students get sick in their classes after her germ lesson, she said.

Teacher Judy Klunder said she and other teachers talk to children about cleanliness, but seeing the bacterial colonies firsthand really gets results.

"Nothing makes an impression like this," she said.



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