Two of my friends were discussing the spread of disease in Nigeria. “People don’t wash their hands,” one lamented. “So many diseases could be avoided if only people wash their hands.” “Oh, come off it”, the other one replied. “How many times do you wash your hands in a day? I don’t wash all that often, and I’m fine.”
It’s true. Many people do not wash their hands. According to a study done in the US, 10% of people do not wash their hands at all, while 33% do not use soap when they wash. These are first-world statistics; the reality is much grimmer in Africa. I’m sure that up to 30% of people do not wash their hands at all, and up to 50% of people do not use soap to wash their hands.
In many parts of Africa, there is a staple food of starchy grains known as “swallow”: garri, fufu and amala are the most popular. These foods are usually eaten with hands, not cutlery. I’ve seen people sit down to eat and when presented with a bowl of water to wash their hands before eating, wet just the tips of their fingers with the water, and then plunge their whole hand into the food. Only after eating do they wash their hands -not particularly well- with soap. Afterwards, if they are unlucky and come down with food poisoning, they go to a patent medicine dealer and demand that they be given drugs for typhoid fever.
When people do wash their hands, many do not do it properly. They wash with water only, as though water can remove bacteria and viruses that cause disease. They spend too little time while washing their hands, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Even when they do use soap, people concentrate only on their palms, when it’s easier for microorganisms to hide out on the tips of their fingers and under their fingernails.
Why Wash Your Hands?
According to the CDC,
Washing hands with soap and water could reduce deaths from diarrheal disease by 50%.
If everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented.
Appropriate hand washing can reduce the risk of food borne illnesses..
Hand washing can reduce respiratory infections by 15%.
Only 20% of people wash their hands before preparing food (this is particularly horrifying).
80% of communicable disease are transferred by touch. This isn’t just about person-to-person touch; it’s about touching doorknobs, switches or railings that other people have touched. We then use our hands to touch our faces or pick our noses. We bite our fingers or rub our eyes. In touching all these things and then touching ourselves, we’re exposed to so many dangerous diseases.
We touch so many dirty things and surface in the course of our day. Why wouldn’t we want to lower the chances of getting sick?
I know there are legitimate barriers to hand washing, especially for people of low socioeconomic status:
– No access to clean water
– Lack of education and knowledge of basic hygiene
– Absent or ineffective government policies to promote basic hygiene.
This post is for the people who should know better, and who are better equipped to protect themselves.
When Should We Wash Our Hands?
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage
How Should We Wash Our Hands?
The CDC recommends 15-20 seconds of vigorous hand washing, making sure to lather the backs of our hands, between our fingers and under our nails. Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry.
Here’s a video by the CDC summarising this post. 1:54 to 2:25 shows how exactly to wash our hands.
If we can cut our risk of getting sick just by washing our hands more often, it’s really important. I’m not always sure of having access to running water in the course of my day, so I carry a tiny container of liquid soap in my purse. When I need to wash my hands, I can buy a bottle of water (or sachet of water, more likely) and take care of it. It certainly costs less than treating an infection does.
Wash your hands!
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