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How hand washing prevents diseases

Medical experts say cleaning the hands can keep deadly infections at bay

By Cosmas Omegoh

We are regularly reminded to engage in hand washing. We need to engage in this exercise as soon as we have had contact with people or soon after an activity during which we might have picked up germ-causing infection.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia says: “Hand washing, or hand hygiene, is the act of cleaning one’s hands for the purpose of removing soil, dirt and microorganism.

“This may be done with or without the use of water, other liquids, or soap. In situations where tap water and soap are not available, other options include pouring water from a hanging jerry can or gourd or using ash instead of water.

“Medical hand hygiene pertains to the hygiene practices related to the administration of medicine and medical care that prevents or minimises disease and the spreading of disease.

“The main medical purpose of washing hands is to cleanse the hands of pathogens, (including bacteria or viruses) and chemicals which can cause personal harm or disease. This is especially important for people who handle food or work in the medical field, but it is also an important practice for the general public.”

In our communities, the need for people to wash their hands only arises once there is an outbreak of a disease. In the recent past, for instance, there was outbreak of Ebola. Its virus is mainly contracted when a victim comes in contact with anyone already infected by the virus.

Ebola was one scourge which shook the country to her foundation, throwing every Nigerian, big and small, into severe panic mode. Ebola has no cure just as it has no vaccine to checkmate its savage advances. But experts say that intermittent hand washing can check its march. They say that those who adhere to this practice have greater chances of staying safe from harm’s way.

Then at some point, the Lassa epidemic fever showed up in the country, leaving everyone running for cover. Health professionals were more ill at ease with it because it did not spare them. Those who mistake Lassa fever’s symptoms to be those of malaria fever pay the ultimate price. Indeed, it has killed many since it first berthed in the country   .

According to health experts, Lassa fever can be contracted after one has made contact with an infected person. So they recommend hand washing as a way of avoiding it.

Diseases such as cholera and dysentery are equally dreaded.  Once an outbreak of any of them occurs, it doesn’t subside without killing scores. And so to avoid them, health experts also suggest that we wash hands with soap regularly. Same for other diseases that may be contracted through direct contact with germs or infected persons. By doing so, hand washing becomes an essential hygiene habit. That means that the exercise is one very important culture everyone needs to take seriously so as to stay healthy and happy.

Dr M O Ogundeji, Director, Primary Healthcare Management Centre, Ibadan, says that hand washing is a powerful and essential tool in primary healthcare delivery.

“It is important because it helps to prevent diseases that can be contracted with hands and subsequently transferred to the mouth.

“If people can cultivate the habit of hand washing, it can drastically cut down on the spread of diseases in the country.

“Those who have imbibed the habit of hand washing may not know what they have taught the society; they may know how much they have helped in curtailing the spread of diseases. They may not know what they have done to save the lives of many, especially children. Take for instance, when a mother returns home from the market or her farm with her hands soiled, she is definitely carrying a lot of germs which her children might pick up. Remember that these germs cannot be seen with the eyes. In places where we have women as traditional birth attendants, if they don’t wash their hands before taking delivery, they may end up infecting the women they are out to assist.

“Therefore, hand washing should be a regular exercise; people need to show interest in it so that others can develop the culture.”

Wikipedia explains further: “Frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illnesses. It requires only soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser – a cleanser that doesn’t require water.

“As you touch people, surfaces and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. In turn, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Although it’s impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.”

It therefore recommends hand washing before preparing, eating and after eating food, treating wounds, giving medicine, or caring for a sick or injured person and inserting or removing contact lenses.

It also warns that once one visits the toilet or changes a diaper, touches an animal or animal toys, leashes or waste, blows the nose, coughs or sneezes into the hands, hand washing should be next thing to do.

It says the moment anyone finishes attending to wounds or caring for a sick or injured person, garbage, household or garden chemicals, or anything that could be contaminated – such as a cleaning cloth or soiled shoes or shaking hands with others or whenever their hands are dirty, they should be washed.

A medical professional, Dr Douglas Nkemdilim, on his part, reiterates that hand washing is a very important way of avoiding oral diseases.

“These are disease that we contact from body fluids, such as sweat, spittle and even blood.

“For us in the health sector, it is highly recommended that once you finish attending to a patient, you should wash your hands; it is one hand wash after every patient.”

He suggests that parents should always ensure that their children wash their hands whenever they touch objects whenever they play, fall down or touch people. He also advises people to wash their hands as regularly as possible whether they are dirty or not.

Dr Nkemdilim says the best way to wash hands is to use running water, but regrets that these days, pipe-borne water is no longer available to the people. However, he is of the view that it is better to wash with water that is running from either a basin or tank.

“You start with the fingers; then you wash up to the elbow. Then you rinse your hand using a hand towel; each person ought to use one hand towel. However, toilet tissue or disposal sanitary paper is better.”

Both Ogundeji and Nkemdilim are united in advocating that hand washing policy should be introduced in schools.

“It is a habit that every school should encourage,” Ogundeji declares. “Government should try to make it a policy and ensure that it is adopted in our schools.  When children imbibe this habit, they will take appropriate action to help themselves when they grow up.

“We are aware that government cannot provide water in schools and therefore cannot enforce hand washing as a policy; it can only be encouraged as a powerful means of having people stay out of trouble when they grow up.”

Similarly, Dr Nkemdilim says that with rising cases of diseases, it has become necessary to teach children quality hygiene habits such as hand washing because what they learn at school is more permanent.

“Children learn about washing hands before and after eating in their homes, but that is passive,” he said. “At the school, they learnt that hand washing should be much more than that. Since children are more inclined to believing their teachers, that knowledge is bound to stay.”

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