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Marjorie Cortez: Wash your hands of school germ problems

Call it the three-week rule. Predictably, three weeks after school starts, one of my children gets sick.

When I call the school secretary to inform her that my child will be out of class, she will inquire what's wrong. Invariably, she will say, "I've had quite a few of those today. It must be going around."

I lack a medical background — other than occasionally playing nurse to family members — but it seems to me that three weeks is adequate time to concoct quite the germ soup at the neighborhood school. Experts who have cultured surfaces in schools generally find a bumper crop of viruses and bacteria. No surprise there. But professional microbiologists were stunned at where they found the most germs — places such as headphones, computer keyboards and even cafeteria trays, according to a Scripps Howard News Service report.

Cafeteria trays, according to the nonprofit "Scrub Club," had 10 times the germs found on toilet seats. The worst offender was the drinking fountain spigot — 2.7 million bacterial cells per square inch. Disgusting, isn't it?

Microbiologists who conducted the surveys believe school custodians generally do a good job of cleaning restrooms, sinks and desks, but they may pay less attention to computer keyboards and cafeteria trays because they are not commonly believed to harbor bacteria. It could it be that they perceive those items to be someone else's responsibility.

The bottom line is, our neighborhood schools are brim full of germs. As a result, 164 million school days are lost to illness each year, according to Centers for Disease Control estimates.

What's a parent to do?

The answer is profoundly simple: hand washing. We need to wash our hands and we must insist that kids wash their hands. Frequently. The Scrub Club recommends rubbing soapy hands for at least 20 seconds — twice the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday — and using a nail brush. If it's impossible to wash one's hands, alcohol-based hand gels are a suitable substitute.

But we all have to wash our hands. Parents have to model the behaviors they want their children to emulate. New studies suggest men are less diligent about hand washing, although a shocking number of women also forego this basic form of hygiene. Scientists who spied on Americans in public restrooms in various cities in the United States found that one-quarter of men left without washing their hands while 10 percent of women failed to do so. All I can say is "GROSS!"

When asked if they wash their hands, Americans have an exaggerated sense of their hygiene. Ninety-one percent of 1,000 people who responded to a Harris Interactive telephone survey said they wash their hands in public restrooms, the Associated Press reported. Moreover, 77 percent claimed to always wash before handling or eating food and 32 percent claimed they always washed after coughing or sneezing.

Yeah, right.

With influenza season soon to be upon us, it makes sense to get a flu shot. But we also have be mindful of the transmission of germs. Incredibly, the flu virus can stay alive for two hours on hands and 20 minutes on hard dry surfaces such as a desk top or kitchen counter.

Time to scrub the counter and our hands. At the risk of nagging, you men have some catching up to do.

After all, our little darlings are bringing home a sample of their school's germ soup every day. We need to combat these bugs with a united front.

Marjorie Cortez, a habitual hand washer, is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her — after swabbing off your keyboard — at