Germs are our friends…really

If you had the city’s top microbiologist, Dr. Donald Low, one of the doctors that saw T.O. through the SARS crisis, cornered, what would you ask him about H1N1 swine flu?

THE GO-TO GUY for everything swine flu and pandemic related, Dr. Low, head of microbiology at Mount Sinai hospital and the University Health Network, knows bugs—the good, the bad and the deadly.

Are you a germaphobe?

Not a phobe, no. I love them. It’s my job; this is what I do for a living. I always find it interesting, myself, even in the middle of SARS, caring for patients, opening up a ward at West Park for health care workers in the east end who had come down with SARS. In hindsight, why wasn’t I afraid? I’m not brave, I just wasn’t afraid…. I don’t know why.

Are you saying we have nothing to fear from all these bugs going around?

No you shouldn’t be afraid; a healthy respect, on other hand. These things are important to us to be healthy individuals. There is more bacteria in guts and skin than we have cells in our bodies: 99.9 per cent are harmless, but the odd one comes along and takes advantage of certain opportunities.”

But the word “pandemic” is pretty scary. Should we be afraid?

I think that we can actually feel reassured….

The first brush with this was April, May, June, and the impact was relatively minor. Despite the concerns the next pandemic would threaten infrastructure and health care facilities…. It was a little crazy. There were people sick enough to go to hospital, ICU, and some died, but overall we continue to learn how to manage this.”

Do you take any vitamins or special foods at home — can we eat our way to immunity?

No, well, other than the things you should take. But I take vitamin D — not to protect from influenza — but I take things like vitamin D.  I read that vitamin D might actually work as an influenza defence. Possibly, I don’t know. It has a role to play in preventing and treating tuberculosis. There’s lots to learn out there….

What about the medicine cabinet, should we be stocking up at home?

No. There is no indication that there will be a shortage of any medication.

Soap or Purell?

Purelling is a great interim step…. The rule that I preach is if your hands are visibly dirty physically scrub with soap and water.

Flu shot: yes or no?

Yes, of course. I think my message is that we have a long history of influenza vaccine in the world…. In North America, it is primarily the attenuated killed virus as a vaccine that has been around for a long time and is very safe and effective. People must remember, influenza is a terrible disease, and you don’t want to put others at risk….

Are we more at risk in a large city such as Toronto?

There are more opportunities in a large population of susceptible people that those individuals in relatively close contact at schools, office buildings, etc. … all those places provide opportunities for viruses to transmit that you wouldn’t see in a small town.”

How long is this so-called second wave suppose to last?

It should last eight to 12 weeks.

So should I stay clear of the subway?

It is an interesting thought. There is no evidence that changes in behaviour like that will actually change the nature of the pandemic. But with strategies like this during 1918 there was evidence some cities in the United States — gleaned from going through old records — in cities that implemented policies that discouraged public, social gatherings, such as movies, public gatherings, school closures … were able to not necessarily prevent but to flatten it and sometimes reduce the overall burden of severe disease.

Why don’t we just make the flu shot mandatory?

Well, everybody likes to dance around the issue. We have a voluntary process. I think there is a lot to be said for mandatory vaccine, but I don’t think it is going to happen.”

But, I’ll bet it is mandatory in your house.

Oh yes…. If anybody comes over to visit, it is in the fridge.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO