Pomp and contamination at commencement?

Tried as they might, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health did not succeed in taking the joy out commencement season. Aside from an annual dusting off of Bartlett's Quotations for appropriate valedictory-speech wisdom and tossing of caps at the close of ceremonies, what else do all commencements have in common? Yes, handshakes. And lots of them. Along with good wishes, congratulations and diplomas, lots and lots of bacteria also trade hands. So researchers decided to see just how risky that handshake can be by studying the chances of acquiring pathogenic bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) through shaking hands at graduation ceremonies across Maryland.

The conclusion? "A single handshake offers only a small risk of acquiring harmful bacteria," researcher David Bishai said in a statement. "Our study indicates when shaking hands, the rate of hand contamination among graduating students to be 100 times lower than the 17 percent rate observed among health workers caring for patients known to be colonized with MRSA.

"Reasons for the lower rate of contamination at graduations include the much briefer and less-extensive contact in a handshake and what we presume is a lower prevalence of MRSA in graduating students compared to hospital patients. Another reason may be that subsequent handshakes could remove pathogens acquired in an earlier handshake."

Bishai got the idea for the project after years of attending Bloomberg School's graduations and wondering what would be growing on the dean's hand at the end of the day. What sealed it was when he learned that some Johns Hopkins officials were getting squirts of hand sanitizer behind the podium.

- read the Johns Hopkins release
- or the abstract in The Journal of School Nursing