Bacteria and microbes are present in almost every part of the human body. In fact, microorganisms outnumber human cells 10 to 1 and can make up to 3% of the body’s mass¹.
A microbiome refers to the make up of these microorganisms in a specific location, for example, the gut, skin or nose.
In healthy adults, the microbiome is essential to human health and survival as it's the bacteria in the gut that allows us to digest food and absorb nutrients.
In an effort to understand infectious disease, a 2012 human microbiome research project¹ — funded primarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and with over 200 collaborators — attempted to find a healthy baseline for the microbiome in healthy adults. The following summarises the report's findings.
The report revealed that even “healthy individuals differ remarkably in the microbes that occupy habitats such as the gut, skin and vagina”¹ and that “much of this diversity remains unexplained”. It was also found that “the diversity and abundance of each habitat's signature microbes do vary widely even among healthy subjects, with strong niche specialisation both within and among individuals”. In short, each person that is otherwise ‘healthy’ has a different bacterial make up. There is no standard microbiome for a healthy individual, so a bacterium that may be fine for one person, may not be fine for others.
It was also shown that nearly everyone routinely carries pathogens, microorganisms known to cause illness. This again goes to show that bacteria that is non harmful to one individual may be harmful to another.
For example, many individuals carry methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on their skin and in their nose without any harm to themselves, however, when MRSA is exposed to other individuals, it can cause significant illness. It is currently unclear why some harmful bacteria can lie dormant in some individuals and not others.
Pathogens can be transmitted and spread in a number of ways including:
We have more information about modes of transmission if you're interested.
Once these pathogens and infectious agents are transmitted, they can live on inanimate surfaces, such as beds, towels, desks and hand rails, for months (depending on the type of organism, the source, the destination surface and humidity levels)². Once the bacteria are on the surface, they can be easily transmitted to a person simply by that person making contact with the contaminated surface.
The Australian Guidelines for the Prevention and Control of Infection in Healthcare indicates that “source individuals may be actively ill, may have no symptoms but be in the incubation period of a disease, or may be temporary or chronic carriers of an infectious agent with or without symptoms,”³ indicating that while personnel may appear healthy there is still the potential to transmit harmful bacteria. Good hygiene practice aims at reducing both the transmission and spread of harmful bacteria, as well as reducing the risk of infection by exposure to pathogens.
One of the most researched and implemented hygiene practices is hand washing due to the incredible preventative ability it has and its economic viability. In saying this, a study of Australian teaching hospitals found that only 30% of staff followed hygiene protocol when unmonitored, increasing the rate of healthcare-acquired infections (HAI)⁴.
Don’t leave your health to luck or to others. You have rights and a responsibility to ensure that your health and safety are protected in any therapy or medical circumstance. Furthermore, by practicing good personal hygiene, you can help contribute to a healthier society.
Be aware. Is there a sink in the therapy room? Did you see your therapist use it? Are they wearing gloves?
If you have concerns, speak up. Ask the therapist if they can kindly wash their hands. Ask if the therapy bed can be wiped down in front of you (if it isn’t covered by a single-use protector) and ask for hygiene products that are proven to reduce the transmission of bacteria. Paper products for example, or those that don’t fully cover the face hole of a therapy bed, just don’t cut it.
Stay home when you're feeling unwell. Wash your hands regularly.
1 Gevers, D., Knight, R., Petrosino, JF., et al. The Human Microbiome Project: A Community Resource for the Healthy Human Microbiome; PLOS Biology: 10(8) (2012). doi: 1371/journal.pbio.1001377
2 Russotto, V., Cortegiani, A., Raineri, S. M. et al.Bacterial contamination of inanimate surfaces and equipment in the intensive care unit. j intensive care 3, 54 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40560-015-0120-5
3 Australian Guidelines for the Prevention and Control of Infection in Healthcare (May 2019); Accessed 1 October 2019 from https://nhmrc.govcms.gov.au/about-us/publications/australian-guidelines-prevention-and-control-infection-healthcare-2019#block-views-block-file-attachments-content-block-1
4 Mitchell, B. G., Shaban, R. Z., MacBeth, D., et al .The burden of healthcare-associated infection in Australian hospitals: a systematic review of the literature. Infection, Disease & Health ;22:117–28 (2017) doi:10.1016/j.idh.2017.07.001
5 The Australian Charter for Healthcare Rights (July 2019); Accessed 1 October 2019 from https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/publications-and-resources/resource-library/australian-charter-healthcare-rights-second-edition-a4-accessible
WORLD'S FIRST RESEARCH ― A significant amount of government funding is consistently allocated to research into infection risks and prevention in hospital environments, however, the same can't be said for therapy environments. This lack of research prompted us to commission our own preliminary research into the infection risks associated with therapy beds, with a focus on the transmission of both bacteria and saliva. The results are in and they will shock you!