Having a handshake with bacteria

Last month, Rwandans joined the rest of the world to mark the Hand Washing Day - a global event aimed at mobilising people around the world to wash their hands regularly with soap, especially after using the toilet, to prevent infections.

Last month, Rwandans joined the rest of the world to mark the Hand Washing Day — a global event aimed at mobilising people around the world to wash their hands regularly with soap, especially after using the toilet, to prevent infections.

The day, marked in Nyabihu District in Western Province, also saw a three-month national hygiene campaign in schools launched with a target of reaching over two million children.

The Hand Washing Day came three months after the conclusion of a six-month national sanitation drive aimed at encouraging hygiene, not only at personal, and domestic level, but also in public domain.

Regular washing of hands with soap, according to health officials, can help reduce deaths from diarrhoea by almost one-half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by nearly one-quarter.

This is why the campaign is not only important, but also timely: According to the Rwanda Demographic Health Survey 2010, diarrhoea prevalence in the country stands at 13 percent and in most cases it is caused by poor hygiene. The survey also reveals that only 10 percent of households in the country have a facility for washing hands; and of those, 21 only percent have water and soap for hand washing.

On the other hand, diarrhoea is estimated to kill almost 2.4 million children under five, every year worldwide — most of them in poor countries. This largely preventable burden affects not only individuals and families, but puts a burden on health care systems and economic productivity.

In Africa alone, it is estimated that economic losses due to the lack of water and sanitation represent approximately 5 percent of annual GDP ($28.4 billion). Yet improvements in sanitation have been demonstrated to reduce child mortality by more than 30 percent and overall morbidity by almost 37 percent.

Back to hand washing, in July this year, findings published in the edition of the American Journal of Infection Control, discouraged handshakes, as a form of greeting, showing that it (a handshake) transfers 10 times as much bacteria as fist bumping and twice as much as a high-five.

To those who cannot afford to do without handshakes (like most Rwandans), the researchers from the Aberystwyth University, Wales, suggested a seemingly tiring, but necessary option, washing hands immediately after contact. That gives you more reason to embrace habitual, soapy hand washing, right?

Away from that, government has also been involved in various other efforts to promote public hygiene, for instance in 2012, it made it mandatory for commercial motorcycle operators to provide hygienic head-covers, locally known as Akanozasuku, to their passengers (though there are still challenges with implementation).The head cover is a disposable white cotton synthetic fabric worn under the helmet, known to ensure hygiene, but also minimise disease spread.

More about sanitation and hygiene, in recent years the ministry of health has spearheaded inspection of recreational facilities like hotels and restaurants to make sure they meet required hygiene standards. And this has seen culprit facilities temporarily closed as penalty.

Therefore, the government has done its best to foster public hygiene and cleanliness, but a lot remains to be done at individual level. Some people have a rather disgusting habit of spitting in public and using bare hands to wipe mucous after sneezing.

Anyone who has been to any of Kigali’s major taxi parks will not miss seeing someone recklessly throwing a glob of saliva. What these people don’t know is that the mucous membranes in their saliva could be carrying diseases like tuberculosis or influenza, therefore causing a public health risk.

I am not saying people should always hold up whenever they are overwhelmed by the need to spit, but at least when in public do it in a handkerchief or tissue for example. That is safer and more civil.

Singapore, China, and parts of Chicago, have gone ahead to ban the habit of spitting in public, citing its disease risk and the fact that it’s socially unacceptable.

Public hygiene and cleanliness, should not be government responsibility alone, citizens have to shoulder it too. Therefore washing hands should not end with the global events to mark the day, but should be a culture taught to all right from infancy to ensure healthy living.

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