By Genevieve Kelly
As the Ebola epidemic ravages West Africa and the international community is mobilizing its support, one point comes up over and over: something should have been done sooner.
The rapid rate at which the virus has spread throughout Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in particular, and the ever-increasing death toll has exposed consistent problems: inadequate healthcare services, a shortage of health workers and a lack of basic services such as water, sanitation and handwashing stations within communities.
Unlike other highly publicized disease outbreaks in recent history such as SARS and influenza strains, the Ebola Virus is not airborne; its spread is through the direct contact with an infected individual’s blood or other bodily fluid. Although not passing through the air, the virus can survive outside an individual’s body on surfaces – for a matter of days, even weeks – which makes it more difficult to prevent than simply avoiding contact with others.1
That is why handwashing with soap is of paramount importance.
While handwashing with soap is only one of many prevention methods that should be practiced in an outbreak situation, it is one of the more simple, cost-effective solutions to lower one’s risk of contracting Ebola, by washing the virus off of the skin and preventing its further spread. Beyond the virus, handwashing with soap is highly effective to prevent other diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia, which are often deadly for children under five.
Despite its life-saving qualities, handwashing with soap is not a common behaviour in West Africa and in many other areas worldwide. Historically low awareness and a lack of access to soap and designated areas for handwashing contribute to very low rates of practice.
While the current outbreak in West Africa highlights the need for soap and instilling healthy hygiene habits, promoting regular handwashing, particularly among children, is of paramount importance for everyone, everywhere, every day.
Join PSI on this Global Handwashing Day to raise awareness and spread the word, not the virus, with this simple, life-saving intervention.
1Piercy, T.J., Smither, S.J., Steward, J.A., Eastaugh, L., Lever, M.S. (2010) The survival of filoviruses in liquids, on solid substrates and in a dynamic aerosol. J Appl Microbiol. 109(5): 1531-9.
Genevieve Kelly is a program assistant in PSI’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program.
Photo credit: Jackie Presutti