In a high-tech medical world, health experts from the nation's leading agencies are trying to get out a decidedly low-tech message in the battle against infectious disease:
Wash your hands.
Cover your face when you cough or sneeze.
Stay away from others if you're sick.
It's the same thing your mom and grandma told you. What's different about delivery of the message Wednesday morning, via a telephone conference to kick off a "Speak Up" education campaign, is the fire power of the messengers: The call featured the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), the American Hospital Association (AHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APICE), Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) and the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA).
The flu vaccine shortage has made this a natural time to discuss how not to spread disease. But the campaign and its launch were planned well before half the influenza vaccine became unavailable when manufacturer Chiron shut down, they said.
The advice applies equally well to SARS, strep throat and other respiratory and contagious diseases. "There is growing public concern about transmission (of illness), emerging infectious diseases and rapid spread of antibiotic-resistant" germs. Besides that, "seasonal respiratory infections are imminently upon us. We encourage you to learn, to teach and to practice these simple tools," said Dr. Michael Tapper of SHEA.
Dr. Walter Stamm, IDSA, pointed out that most of those illnesses are viral and antibiotics will do absolutely nothing for them except increase future antibiotic resistance. Reliance on treatments such as antibiotics has allowed common-sense precautions such as good hygiene to "fall into disuse," he said.
He also noted a need to "create incentives for the pharmaceutical industry to get in and stay in the infectious disease market," including creating vaccines to prevent infectious diseases. Because people only take such remedies for short periods of time, he said, it's not as attractive to drug makers as treatments for chronic, lifelong diseases.
The fact that doctors are trying to tackle antibiotic resistance by limiting a patient's exposure to antibiotics has also been a disincentive for the drug manufacturers to develop new antibiotics, he said.
Jeanne Pfeiffer, a nurse with APICE, offers other advice for avoiding infectious illness. It's an "important time," she said, "to be well rested and well nourished and have reasonable diets."
CDC's Dr. Denise Cardo noted that the giant health agency is working with airlines and others to see what needs to be done to prevent spread of disease by travelers.
The campaign is called Speak Up because that's what organizers want patients to do. If you have questions, ask your health-care provider. If you don't understand the answer, ask until you do. It calls on patients to pay attention to the care they're getting, educate themselves about both diagnosis and treatment, take a friend along as an advocate, understand what medicines you take and why, use only health facilities that have undergone rigorous on-site evaluation and participate in all decisions about your treatment.
JCAHO outlines the infectious-disease message in a brochure available online at www.jcaho.org or by calling 877-223-6866. Speak Up brochures on other health topics are also available.