Have the lessons of the pandemic put some microbiology myths to bed? We find out
It’s a common Saturday night sight: women tottering around the streets in dresses and heels, their arms wrapped tightly around their upper bodies to ward off the cold. If you’re like most people, this scene immediately evokes in your mind the time-worn admonishment of our wiser elders: they’re going to catch their death of cold.
Or are they? If there's one good thing that can be said about the coronavirus pandemic, it's that it gave us all a crash course in microbiology. Not a single catchy public health slogan advised us to wrap up warm to stave off COVID, or to keep out of the path of a draft. We all now know that rubbing our eyes after handling a dog-eared tenner is more likely to make us ill than leaving home without a scarf. Don’t we?
Many folk beliefs about illness gain traction because they have a grain of truth. We do get more respiratory and gastrointestinal infections in winter, but it’s because we hang around together indoors more. Cold air dries out mucosal tissue, helping microscopic bugs latch on, and some of them live longer in lower temperatures. But a microorganism is a prerequisite.
“My mother, father and grandmother were absolutely convinced that you catch a cold by sitting in a draft,” says Peter Piot, the virologist most famous for helping discover the Ebola virus in 1976 and for leading research on HIV. “I tried to explain to them for many years that it’s caused by a virus… but there was just no way.” He’s now retired as head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, but in his long career he encountered many weird and wonderful beliefs about the causation of disease.
"My mother, father and grandmother were absolutely convinced that you catch a cold by sitting in a draft"
“Some of these beliefs have been around for centuries. They’re very strong. And my experience has been that information doesn’t necessarily help.” He reminisces that his grandmother stigmatised redheads because she believed they were conceived during menstruation. She couldn’t be convinced otherwise. “It’s universal. In Europe we are not more rational than anywhere else.”
“I do I think that there is a much better understanding in general of transmission dynamics. But I think the beliefs continue. The belief about drafts is very widespread. People will look at the data and say, ‘yeah, sure, that's true. But in my case, when I sit in a cold draft, I really do get sick!’”
He might be right. Recent government COVID guidance recommended opening windows in classrooms to improve ventilation, setting off a firestorm in online parents’ groups. Their beefs vary – from lack of investment in proper air filters, to anger the schools are even open – to, of course, fear their kids will catch colds.
“I’m afraid my daughter will end up sick from the cold draft,” says a mother in one Facebook parenting group. A member of a group called “Close the windows in SCHOOLS” advises others to sue if their kids catch pneumonia due to the cold.
Meaghan Kall is the lead epidemiologist in the UKHSA COVID-19 Epidemiology Cell. She says there is undoubtedly improved awareness of the ways viruses are really spread, but even so, “…whether people will change their behaviours long-term is not clear.
The ‘Wash your hands’ message was repeated everywhere during the start of the pandemic, so there is no doubt that both awareness and compliance was very high.” But she says, “Already, we are seeing some data that handwashing has dropped to near pre-COVID levels...”
"Already, we are seeing some data that handwashing has dropped to near pre-COVID levels..."
Folk beliefs die hard, but sometimes the experts are slow to challenge their assumptions, too. In a 2021 article in Nature, science journalist Dyani Lewis questioned the excessive attention paid to disinfecting surfaces after it had been shown that it won’t do much to stop transmission.
Scientists were going by accepted wisdom about other infectious diseases like cold and flu, and had trouble accepting that COVID could be primarily airborne.
“It does nobody any good to state something as fact if there is uncertainty,” says Lewis, noting that in the early days, health officials also stated emphatically that masks don’t work.
On the bright side, she says, “One thing that I think the public has become much better at realising is that when you’re unwell, the best thing to do is to rest and recover and try as much as possible to make sure they don’t pass their illness on to others - which I guess demonstrates a clearer understanding of the fact that colds and flus are infectious agents and not just a bad reaction to the weather, for instance.”
“The habit of soldiering on at work with a runny nose and cough is hopefully something that people now recognise is not acceptable.”
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