You may be trying to get a handle on the monkeypox virus outbreak. But can touching a handle give you the virus? How about sitting on a toilet seat, flushing the toilet, using a mouse (a computer mouse, that is), or flipping off a light switch? Well, a study described by a new publication in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) did find monkeypox virus DNA on a variety of objects. That’s 21 of 30 different objects from the home of two people who had monkeypox tested by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services (UDHHS). But before you declare that you will never be using a toilet seat or flushing a toilet ever again, it’s important to stay “cultured,” so to speak, and keep in mind that the cultures from these objects did not yield live monkeypox virus. So, what does this all mean?
Let’s try to get a better handle on this study. A team from the CDC (Faisal S. Minhaj, Audrey M. Matheny, Chantal Kling, Andrea M. McCollum, and Clint N. Morgan) and UDHHS (Jack A. Pfeiffer, Abigail Collingwood, Linda E. Rider, and Leisha D. Nolen) described how 30 different “high-contact” objects from nine areas of the home were swabbed. Note that these objects were “swabbed,” meaning cotton swabs were used to collect samples from the surfaces of the objects, rather than “swapped,” which would have meant a totally different thing. This swabbing occurred back in May 2022 after the two housemates had been isolating at home for 20 days but still had symptoms. One person ended up having mild monkeypox illness for approximately 30 days, the other for 22 days. After the specimens were sent by the Utah Public Health Laboratory to the CDC, the CDC used both nonvariola Orthopoxvirus and West African Monkeypox virus–specific real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays to check for the presence of monkeypox virus DNA. For samples that had tested positive for monkeypox virus DNA via the PCR, the CDC went on to conduct viral cultures to check for the presence of live virus.
The CDC ended up finding evidence of monkeypox virus DNA in samples from 21 (70%) of the 30 objects, including various fabric, plastic, wood, and metal items. These were objects such as a couch, blanket, fleece, light switch, toilet handle, toilet seat, refrigerator handle, coffee maker, faucet handle, shower door handle, bannister, mouse, and keyboard.
This despite the fact that the residents didn’t exactly treat their house like the fraternity house on the movie Animal House or Thor’s lair in Avengers: End Game and instead seemed to keep things relatively clean during their isolation. The residents reported that while isolating they had showered themselves once or twice each day, maintained hand hygiene around 10 times daily, did laundry about once a week, and cleaned high-contact surfaces on a daily basis. They did not use a cleaning spray listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPAs) List of Disinfectants for Emerging Viral Pathogens, though.
Of note, however, viral cultures did not find live monkeypox virus in any of the samples. So it’s not clear whether there was ever enough live virus on these objects to have infected other people. Remember, to get infected, there has to be live virus and enough of the virus present. Just like there’s a difference between seeing One Direction live in concert and seeing only One Direction’s DNA in concert, the presence of monkeypox virus DNA does not mean the same as the presence of live virus. Live virus could have been present at some point but over time degraded. Or maybe the residents’ cleaning and disinfection practices helped inactivate or break down the virus. Additionally, since the residents appeared to have had only mild illness, they may not have been shedding as much virus as those with more severe illness.
Finding monkeypox virus DNA on different objects shouldn’t be a complete surprise. It’s been long known that people infected with the virus can end up contaminating objects, which could then end up possibly transmitting the virus to other people. This study did show the possible wide range of objects both porous and non-porous that could end up being contaminated. So when you enter a room where someone with the monkeypox virus has been staying isolated, it’s probably not a great idea to start rubbing objects from the room on your body.
Instead, it is important to maintain proper precautions when visiting any location that’s been occupied by someone infected with the virus. These precautions include wearing a well-fitting mask and disposable gloves and avoiding touching any objects that may have been used by the person with monkeypox unless they have already been disinfected. Make sure that you wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Thoroughly means getting at least through the first chorus of the Divinyls song “I Touch Myself,” which would be 20 seconds, while lathering up with soap and water. If you can’t find soap and water, rubbing sanitizer on your hands would be a second choice. Again the key is to rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds rather than quickly putting it on your hands and then doing jazz hands.
Now, you may be wondering how can you tell whether an object has been contaminated by someone infected with the virus, especially when you are in public and many people could have touched the object. The answer is that you can’t, unless you set up surveillance cameras on everything that you may touch over the next few days and then cross-linked these with Facebook data to get their identities. This would be extremely time consuming and prevent you from doing other important things like posting your selfies on Facebook so that others can take this data.
Therefore, what can you do to prevent the possibility of catching the virus from an object. Of course, not touching anything is not an option. You can’t just stand next to a door, looking at it forlornly until someone else comes along to open it for you. And you shouldn’t panic because first of all the infected person needs to contact the object long enough to leave enough of the virus. Secondly, the virus will degrade over time, bringing down your chances of contacting live virus.
The key is to maintain proper reasonable infection prevention precautions when in public regardless of whether you are worried about the monkeypox virus, the Covid-19 coronavirus, or any other pathogen. For example, don’t rush to put your bare butt on a public toilet seat as soon as some other bare butt has been on it. Instead, you may want to clean off the seat with some soap and water first. Of course, taking your time may not always be an option when getting ready to use the toilet. But whenever touching, grabbing, turning, or flipping off anything in public, try to minimize direct contact via using some tissue or paper towels to handle the object rather than your bare hands, cleaning the object first, or at least thoroughly washing your hands and any part of your body that touched the object right after touching the object. This could reduce your risk of catching viruses and other pathogens in general, whether it’s cold viruses, flu viruses, Covid-19 coronaviruses, or things less common like the monkeypox virus.
The Covid-19 pandemic and now the monkeypox outbreak have really highlighted the need for more people to practice better hand hygiene and other infection prevention measures on a daily basis. The passing of these emergencies, whenever they come, shouldn’t prompt you to say, “OK now I can ditch this whole hand hygiene thing and go back to licking door handles.”
Life Sciences, Forbes – Healthcare