There was nearly a political scandal last week, over hand sanitizer. The New York Times reported that President Bush had shaken hands with Sen. Barack Obama, only to have an aide immediately squirt some sanitizer on his hands. Not much of a scandal there, as the full story included Bush offering some to Obama, and telling him it's a good way to prevent colds. True enough, and in fact, as Mary Cheney reported in her recent political autobiography, liberal use of hand sanitizer may be vital to a politician's prospects: "The truth is, all candidates use it -- or suffer the consequences. When Wesley Clark entered the 2004 presidential race, he caught a cold, lost his voice, and was unable to campaign for several days. Some people speculated that the pace of a national campaign had knocked the former NATO commander off the campaign trail. I knew it was because he hadn't learned about hand sanitizer. National candidates shake hundreds, if not thousands, of hands every day. They will get sick unless they wash their hands early and often." Of course, what's true for politicians is true for the rest of us -- we may not shake hundreds of hands a day, but we get exposed to a lot of germs. I often attend the Association of American Law Schools' annual recruiting conference, where thousands of job candidates meet with recruiters from 150 or so law schools. It's a big deal, so people drag themselves there even if they're sick, and -- of course -- everybody shakes hands. It draws people from all over the country, right at the start of cold-and-flu season, and I've become a fanatical handwasher after getting quite sick the first couple of times. According to the BBC, Donald Trump thinks the custom should be abolished: "'I'm not a big fan of the handshake,' he told US TV channel NBC."'I think it's barbaric, shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch this, you catch all sorts of things.'"Perhaps we should substitute bows or heel clicks, but I doubt that will happen. We'll probably just have to make the best of it.Fortunately, technology is making that easier. Before hand sanitizer, you had to find soap, water, and a (clean) towel. That wasn't always easy. (Even paper towels were a substantial step forward for public health, and now, as I've noted, there are even electric hand dryers that actually, you know, dry your hands in short order). Now hand sanitizers let you de-germ your grubby mitts pretty much anywhere. And they work. Now they're distributing free hand sanitizer on the Washington Metro, as a means of preventing flu. Will it work? I guess we'll find out. My guess is that it will do some good. And when I mentioned this on my blog, numerous readers wrote in to report that all sorts of places, from childcare centers, to shopping malls, to cruise ships, were bringing hand sanitizers out and encouraging their use. (I like the idea of sanitizing people who go through a buffet line.) But I think this is just the beginning. As I've noted here before, the false sense of security that resulted from the introduction of antibiotics caused us to let our guard down on a lot of sanitation and public-health issues. But with the growth of antibiotic resistance -- along with threats like avian flu and bioterrorism -- I think that people are likely to start taking these kinds of public health issues much more seriously. And I suspect that technology will play a role. Hand sanitizer is a good example of what technology can offer -- it's cheap, portable, and easy to use. As we look toward the future, we need to look for similar technologies that will help us kill germs, keep water clean, and otherwise cut down on the risks of infection. Some of these will be big technologies that sit in water treatment plants, or in the air filters of public places. But others will be cheap, portable, and easy for ordinary people to use. Something like . . . a nose spray that blocks cold germs? Someday, somebody's going to make a lot of money selling those, and I say: bring it on.
The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and founder of Instapundit.