Handwashing Day 10x
Image Credit: Gulf News / Seyyed de la Llata

DUBAI: It's one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from getting sick. And it's a rather simple lesson most first-graders get — wash your hands properly, with soap. Now, it’s seen as one of the ways to defeat COVID-19. Proper hand hygiene is a tried-and-true public health measure. These COVID times, the world has a newfound importance of proper hand-washing. It reminds us that one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a disease is also one of the simplest.

When these deadly, unseen germs first burst into the global scene, it left the billions of people hunkered down at home. Little then was known about it and ways to deal with it. Yet, one way to defeat it is within easy reach: Wash your hands properly. It’s one of the first recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) to defeat the virus.

This advice persists till today. Even before COVID, it’s one of the most important ways to fight the transmission of infections. Today marks the Global Handwashing Day. Let’s remind ourselves of the importance of basic hand hygiene to beat the virus and ensure better health practices and outcomes beyond the pandemic.

What is Global Handwashing Day?

Washing your hands is such a big deal and an important part of our daily lives, that there is an entire day dedicated to it. Every year on October 15, the world celebrates Global Handwashing Day. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing such a major role in our lives, Global Handwashing Day means more now than it ever has before. The theme of Global Handwashing Day 2020 is “Hand Hygiene for All,” which is a day that focuses on raising awareness of making soap and water available globally, especially in public places, schools, and health care facilities.

How to wash your hands properly, with soap.

The Global Hand Washing Day is an opportunity to design, test and replicate creative ways to encourage people to wash their hands with soap at crucial times.

Why was it launched?

It was launched as a global advocacy day dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding about the importance of handwashing with soap as the most effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives. Global Handwashing Day serves as a strong reminder that washing your hands with is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a virus.

Who initiated it?

Global Handwashing Day was inaugurated about 12 years ago in 2008 by the Global Handwashing Partnership, a collaboration of international stakeholders and businesses working to promote handwashing with soap and recognize hygiene as a pillar of international development and public health.

Why is washing your hand important?

Dirty hands help transmit pathogens like germs and viruses and the spread of highly-resistant bacteria.

How do germs spread?

The US Centre For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says germs can spread from other people or surfaces when you:

  • Touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Prepare or eat food and drinks with unwashed hands
  • Prepare or eat food and drinks with unwashed hands
  • Touch a contaminated surface or objects
  • Blow your nose, cough, or sneeze into hands and then touch other people’s hands or common objects

Hand hygiene

What's the science of soap? How does it kill viruses?

Viruses can stay active for hours, even several days (one experiment shows the coronavirus persists for 4 weeks on bank notes). When you touch, say, a surface with a virus particle on it, it will stick to your skin and hands. If you then touch your face, especially your eyes, nostrils or mouth, you can get infected.

Disinfectants, liquids, wipes, gels and creams with alcohol content do work in getting rid of viruses – but not quite as good as normal soap. How? A quick answer: a virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle. SARS-CoV-2 is about 80–220 nanometres (nm) in size (1nm = 1 billionth of a metre, or 0.000000001 m). Within this viral assembly, the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. Dissolve that fat membrane (which soap does effectively) and the virus disintegrates. In other words, it becomes "inactivated" (we can't say "the virus dies" since they're quite spooky, neither living nor non-living).

SOAP HAS TWO MOLECULES: One binds to water and another to fat (in blue). When the soap modecules come in contact with water and fat, these dual attractions literally pull the fat apart surrounding oil particles in water and dispersing them. The same action happens when soap comes in contact with the coronavirus, which has a fatty (lipid) cover (in brown). The soap molecules that bind to that fatty protective layer pulls it apart, dispersing the pathogenic payload (RNA, proteins and lipids within), thus "inactivating" it and washing it down the drain.

Most viruses have 3 main building blocks: RNA (ribonucleic acid), proteins and lipids (fatty acids or their derivatives). A virus-infected cell makes lots of these building blocks. They then spontaneously self-assemble to form the virus. When an infected cell dies, these new viruses simply escape and go on to infect other cells, and the process is repeated. Some viruses end up also in the lung airways, where the coronavirus replicates like mad. When you cough (and especially when you sneeze), tiny droplets from the airways can fly several metres. These are thought to be the main coronavirus carriers.

When are the key times to wash hands?

You can help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy by washing your hands often, especially during these key times when you are likely to get and spread germs:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • 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 to wash your hands properly

How to handwash
Image Credit: WHO Twitter

How many times a day should you watch your hands?

Six to 10 times a day.

Statistically, handwashing over six times a day has been linked to lower infection risk. A study conducted by the University College London (UCL) published in Wellcome Open Research showed the first empirical evidence that regular handwashing can reduce personal risk of acquiring coronavirus infection. It draws on data from 3 successive winter cohorts (2006 to 2009) of the UK-wide "Flu Watch" study, spearheaded by Sarah Beale (UCL Institute of Health Informatics), a PhD researcher and first author on the study. "Given that COVID-19 appears to demonstrate similar transmission mechanisms to seasonal coronaviruses, these findings support clear public health messaging around the protective effects of handwashing during the pandemic," said Beale.

How many people were involved in this study?

There were 1,633 participants who were provided baseline estimates of hand hygiene behaviour. Coronavirus infections were identified from nasal swabs. The majority of participants (almost 80%) were adults over sixteen years of age. To assess overall handwashing frequency participants were asked the start of each season to "Estimate how many times you washed your hands yesterday."

How was the frequency of daily handwashing measured?

Frequency of daily handwashing was subsequently categorised as follows:

  • LOW (≤5 times daily)
  • MODERATE (6-10 times daily)
  • HIGH (>10 times daily)

This categorisation was guided by literature around influenza-like illness. Moderate-frequency handwashing was associated with significantly reduced overall risk of contracting coronavirus (36% reduction in the risk of infection compared to those who washed their hands 0-5 times per day). For higher-intensity handwashing there was no significant dose-response effect. The analysis was adjusted for age and healthcare worker status.

What’s the significance of the study?

It highlights the fact that the frequency of handwashing is one aspect of hand hygiene. The study concluded that that both longer duration of handwashing and the context of handwashing (for example, upon returning home or before eating) have been associated with lower overall risk of influenza or influenza-like-illness." Good hand hygiene should be practiced at all times regardless of whether you show symptoms or not. This will help protect yourself and prevent unwittingly spreading the virus to others around you,” said Beale.

Key takeaways

  • No matter who you are, you should celebrate Global Handwashing Day today.
  • Whether or not there is a virus, you should always wash your hands