Infectious diseases have always been around, but it takes a new one – a scary and potentially deadly one – to once again become aware of microbial threats. The new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is that kind of wakeup call.
Infectious diseases are the world’s leading cause of premature death according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Nearly 50,000 people die of an infectious disease every day – 17 million each year – and the leading infectious killer is pneumonia. While threats from infectious diseases in the US have declined in the last few decades, in this season alone the CDC estimates there have already been 34 million flu illnesses, with 350,000 reported hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths (136 children among them) just from influenza.
Yet we almost forget about infectious diseases – perhaps blissfully so.
But now, the preparation for what’s to come can teach us some important life and health lessons.
Watch your hands
The centerpiece of the COVID-19 advice is to wash your hands. We’ve been washing hands since preschool, but suddenly we’re paying attention to how it should be done: Hands should be washed frequently, with water and soap, and for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating, after using the bathroom, after blowing your nose and after touching other people and places they’ve touched.
Hands and where they go have become a major focus. You’re instructed to not touch your face.
That’s because respiratory infections spread through droplets in the air, but you can transfer microorganisms directly into your eyes, mouth and nose by your own hands, hands that have touched contaminated surfaces.
Not touching your face is hard. That’s because face touching is much more than a habit, it’s simply human nature, it’s a subconscious action, much like occasionally changing your posture. A study of medical students in Australia found that they did so 23 times an hour. Another recent study of face touching found 6 such incidents in 14 minutes.
We should try our best, for sure, but perhaps rather than repeating the do-not-touch-your-face directive, we should be aware that we do touch our face, and therefore double down on excellent hand hygiene.
Washing hands frequently and well is the most important thing.
And it’s always been so. Many illnesses are spread by contaminated hands – hands carrying bacteria and viruses – and washing hands with water and soap prevents many cases of diarrhea, pneumonia and…