Lately, I've noticed an unusual new piece of hardware in many public restrooms. It's a large metal hook-like thing nailed
to the inside of the door. As I understand the instructions, you're supposed to hook your arm in it and pull the door open.
I think the idea is to spare people from having to touch the doorknob with their hands on their way out so as not to come
into contact with other people's infectious germs. (The principle, I guess, is that one's arm is less susceptible to infection
than one's hand.)
Sometimes, instead of this hook (I don't know whether it has an official name yet: A description of the device came up in
a Google search for "sanitary door opener," as did mentions of animal-operated door openers—the animals use their snouts,
much more sanitary than peoples' hands, no doubt; and foot pedals that open lavatory doors), there is a box of tissue papers
by the door that people can use to cover the (supposedly) contaminated doorknob as they grasp it with their hands. In the
absence of either accessory, I have seen people use toilet paper or paper towels to cover the doorknob.
The use of paper towels seems to have come first, but very occasionally, and now come specialized devices—sanitary door openers.
So, I guess it's a widespread practice reflecting a widespread concern. But where did this concern come from? Why? And why
Well, for one thing, there seem to be more ads on TV designed to make us afraid of the germs "lurking" in our kitchens and
bathrooms at home. I don't know whether this is a symptom or a cause of the same phenomenon that put sanitary door openers
in restrooms, but the ads are not only more abundant, they're more urgent than I remember them being at any other time in
my own (rather long and comprehensive) TV-watching career.
As much as it would be easy to say that this fear of contracting something—no one knows what—from doorknobs and kitchen sponges
is an advertising ploy to sell paper towels, antibacterial soap, and sanitary door-opening paraphernalia, I suspect something
else is operating here. For those of us who grew up in the years after the polio vaccine was widely available and after small
pox and malaria had been eliminated in the developing world, there was nothing you could catch, it seemed, that couldn't be
cured in a few days with an antibiotic. Medicine may not have cured cancer, but plagues and scourges that decimated whole
populations in the past had become mere inconveniences, thanks to modern antibiotics and vaccines.
Then came AIDS, an infectious disease that could kill people and for which no "cure" or preventive vaccine has to date been
found (although there now exist very effective treatments that allow people [who can afford the drugs] to live a relatively
normal, disease-free life). Close on the heels of AIDS followed reports of Ebola, Hantavirus, and more recently, SARS, and
avian flu (the human version being called, quite ominously, pandemic flu). Add to that, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant
tuberculosis, antibiotic resistance in general, and the re-emergence of smallpox, and I find myself wondering whether all
the alarm stems from the dual fears of contagions that arise seemingly from out of nowhere, and a lack of public confidence
in the medical and pharmaceutical establishments to vanquish them.
This past week, a stomach ailment that in its severest form gives rise to symptoms that mimic acute appendicitis seems to
be sweeping through my office. The causative agent is probably a virus, but no one knows for sure. And when colleagues talk
about it, I think I detect a slight note of fear and insecurity that perhaps this is another one of those scourges that we
can't so easily wash our hands of.
Michelle Hoffman is editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org