Why Hand Washing May Prevent You From the Second Wave of COVID-19
Chidindu Mmadu-Okoli FASLN
When one affirms “My health is in my hands”,there is an unannounced responsibility that translates to “My life and the lives of my neighbours and loved ones are in my hands.” This way, we rise to the challenge of protecting our world from the harmful unknown. There are more microbes on earth than there are humans. They can be found in our bodies, the soil, our foods, in the air, amongst many other places and surfaces you can imagine. In fact, it is said that there are a billion microorganisms in one teaspoon of soil.
Belonging to a family of mRNA viruses, SARS-COV-2 (the Novel Coronavirus), which causes COVID-19 is just one of the countless microbes. COVID-19 is not just a disease: it is a pandemic and an amplifier. It has changed our lives and has shown us that the little things to which we pay little or no attention, can actually become the gradual crack that gives way for the fall of any system. When it comes to infectious disease outbreaks, we are only as strong as our weakest links. In Nigeria, these weak links to health security range from large challenges like political will towards epidemic preparedness to little things like taking personal responsibility towards the spread of diseases. Amongst many other efforts that citizens should take towards preventing the spread of COVID-19, good hand hygiene and quality water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities are non-negotiable.
Why is Handwashing Important?
Daily, germs are spread during various activities, through movements and contacts with humans, objects, animals and our environment. Germs are also spread when we touch our body parts, especially our faces, eyes, nose, mouth, door knobs, stair rails, currency notes and other surfaces with unwashed hands. We can also spread diseases through our food, drinks, bad toileting and so on. Thousands of people also die daily from infections acquired during healthcare delivery. The hands are the major pathway for transmitting these diseases within and beyond the hospital settings.
To save our lives and those of others we come in contact with thereby reducing the spread of these germs, hand hygiene has to be a continuous critical part of our lives during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. One cannot say, “I have achieved hand hygiene,” because it is a journey and not a destination.
We wash our hands before and after cooking, eating, using the toilets, touching objects/surfaces or caring for a patient. Most importantly, we ought to wash our hands even when they are not visibly dirty. When we return from our day’s activities, our duty to keep ourselves alive daily through healthy habits. Hand hygiene habits include, performing a proper, regular universally-acceptable handwashing procedure, and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers (with at least 60% alcohol content) to perform regular handrubs.
What happens to the Novel Coronavirus when we wash our hands?
Coronavirus can linger in the air and survive on surfaces. If an unprotected person makes less than 2-feet contact with an infected person or touches these surfaces, and then goes ahead to touch their face, eyes, mouth or nose, they stand a high risk of contracting the virus. As such, twenty seconds of handwashing done with soap and clean water is capable of destroying the particles of the Coronavirus which are unseen by the naked eyes, hence keeping you and your family safe.
A simple way to understand how handwashing does this is to think of what happens when you wash your dirty, oily or greasy clothes in soap and water. Soaps have an amphiphilic property, i.e. they have a water-loving or water-attracting end (hydrophilic head) and a fat-loving end (hydrophobic tail), which makes them interact with both water and lipid phases of a solution.
During laundry, soap binds to the (oil end of the) dirt/grease/oil stain on your clothes, dissolves it and then washes it away.
This same mechanism applies to the Coronavirus when we perform handwashing for at least 20 seconds. The novel coronavirus has a lipid-rich envelope, a shell-like structure enclosed by fatty acids (phospholipid bilayer). This structure is similar to the oil droplet or grease stains on our clothes. During handwashing, the hydrophobic tail of the soap binds to the hydrophobic envelope layer of the virus since both are fat-loving.
As you keep washing your hands, the molecule takes out the phospholipid bilayer of the viral envelope and tears it apart. Note that this does not happen if you wash your hands for less than 20 seconds. The non-covalent bonds existing between these lipids break apart, ruptures and dissolves the viral shell, destroys the viral particle and washes the viral material down the sink/drainage.
Additionally, for hand rubs, when we may not have access to soap and water, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends hand sanitizers with no less than 60% ethylalchohol constituent. The alcohol in hand sanitizers use similar mechanisms in handwashing procedure to annihilate the Coronavirus. However, handwashing remains the best hand hygiene method as it also removes all forms of debris and allows them to be washed wavy from our hands.
Knowing that clean water, soap and at least 20 seconds of time are required to observe regular and proper handwashing, all hands must be on deck. Young people must then take responsibility for their health and safety during this period and beyond. For teens, parents, teachers and guardians should provide and maintain hand hygiene materials needed to initiate, promote and sustain this healthy habit, in our homes and schools.
The government is also not left out. While we advocate for this level of commitment towards flattening the curve, we also realize that handwashing is impossible in the absence of clean water. The Nigerian government needs to support behavioural change efforts for hand hygiene by fully implementing and funding her National Hygiene Promotion Strategy and her National Action Plan for Health Security, to provide quality and structural WASH facilities that enable young people fully embrace the handwashing culture and amplify this behaviour in the communities that they live and thrive. Not all heroes wear capes, some wear clean hands. So, bury the germs; wash your hands.