A virus a click away


Albert Einstein may have said: "If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" but an untidy desk might also be affecting the health of every person who works in an office.

A study conducted at the University of Arizona found that there are 400 times more germs on the average office desk than on a toilet seat. If that is not disturbing enough, desks, phones and other surfaces are also prime habitats for the viruses that cause colds and flu.

So if a person does become sick, the workplace could be to blame. Here is what to watch out for – and how to prevent falling ill in the future.

Key offenders A desk is capable of supporting 10 million bacteria and the average office contains 20,961 germs per square inch, according to research.

The key offenders are telephones, which harbour up to 25,127 germs per square inch, keyboards 3,295 and computer mice 1,676. By contrast, the average toilet seat contains 49 germs per square inch, the survey showed.

These bacteria can cause strep throat, pneumonia and other conditions.

Most people would never leave the bathroom without washing their hands, but how many are guilty of working through lunch, alternating between picking up a sandwich and typing?

Dr Lalit Uchil, specialist physician at the Welcare Ambulatory Care Center, says if a person does become ill they must stay at home to prevent passing it onto colleagues. "Avoid going to work while you are sick because one ill worker can spread the infection to an entire office, especially in closed environments such as air-conditioned offices in the UAE. With the widespread use of e-mail, a sick person can work from home without exposing his or her co-workers to infection," he says.

Unexplained symptoms Dr Zia Ul Hasan, specialist in internal medicine and endocrinology at Medcare Hospital, says he has treated a number of patients for stomach upsets and abdominal problems that do not have an obvious cause, but says their office desk could be to blame. "There is no hard evidence to say a person's desk can definitely cause problems, but I have seen various cases where I have wondered if it has something to do with the workplace," Dr Hasan explains.

However, Dr Uchil says even more serious infections can be picked up at work, including gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, chickenpox, measles, rubella and flu.

Risk of passing it on to others There is a huge risk of some illnesses being passed on. Microbiologist Dr Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona, who carried out the research, says: "When someone is infected with a cold or flu bug the surfaces they touch during the day at the office become germ transfer points because some viruses can survive on these surfaces for up to 72 hours. An office can become an incubator."

Many people try to hide behind a desk coughing and spluttering, but says Dr Uchil this will not protect fellow employees. "Some viruses are contagious and spread by direct contact of employees, others are passed on through the air conditioning," he says.

Combating the problem Desks, phones, computer keyboards and mice are key germ points because people touch them so often. But health experts say simple office hygiene can reduce the risk of infection dramatically.

Things such as regular cleaning of the desk with antibacterial solutions and wiping down work areas with disinfectant reduces bacteria by killing the bugs that cause irritation.

Doctors agree that regularly washing hands after eating will help and say people should stay hydrated.

"People lose fluid and this can cause them to get ill," adds Dr Hasan.

Germs in numbers

The University of Arizona study looked at a number of different office items and found they all contain microbes, but how many are found per square inch of the surface?

  - 25,127 on a phone

  - 20,961 on a desk

  - 3,295 on a keyboard

  - 1,676 on a mouse

  - 301 on a fax machine