- As the novel coronavirus spreads around the globe, public health experts continue to stress that the best way to protect yourself from getting sick is to wash your hands frequently and diligently.
- Insider polled more than 1,000 people across the US on Thursday using a SurveyMonkey Audience poll, asking, “What steps, if any, have you taken to prepare for a possible coronavirus outbreak in the US?”
- More than 65% of the women surveyed said they were “washing hands and keeping surfaces clean” in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, but only about half of the men said the same.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Wash your hands.
It’s the simplest, cheapest, most effective and straightforward piece of advice health experts are handing out in the face of a novel coronavirus outbreak that’s rapidly circling the globe.
So far, more than 83,000 people have come down with the new viral illness caused by the coronavirus, called COVID-19. The sickness prompts symptoms including a fever, dry cough, and in severe cases, trouble breathing and death.
Most cases of COVID-19 diagnosed so far are in China, where the virus originated last year. But in recent days, the number of cases being tallied around the world has soared, just as the rate of new infections in China tumbles, prompting concerns that a widespread pandemic could be on the horizon, if measures to contain the virus around the world fail.
Public health experts still consider basic health and hygiene measures the best defence against COVID-19
“You’ve heard about washing hands,” Dr. Sherlita Amler, an adjunct professor of public health at New York Medical College and Commissioner of Health in Westchester County, said recently at a coronavirus conference.
“If I could teach one thing to the public that would prevent most of the diseases that I have to deal with, it would be wash your hands.”
Officials at the World Health Organisation and US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention agree, and have said much the same in recent days and weeks. Regular handwashing is linked to all kinds of great health outcomes, like fewer norovirus cases, fewer deaths, and happier, more diarrhoea-free trips to the bathroom down the road. It’s also one of the best ways, health experts say, to keep yourself healthy during the coronavirus outbreak.
As it turns out, though, women say they are heeding this piece of public health advice in significantly greater numbers than men – at least in the US.
According to an Insider Data poll, conducted in online surveys on Thursday, a significantly higher number of women reported they’re washing their hands and keeping surfaces clean to ward off COVID-19.
Specifically, when 1,051 poll respondents were asked: “What steps, if any, have you taken to prepare for a possible coronavirus outbreak in the US?” 382 women (65% of those who were asked) said they were “washing hands and keeping surfaces clean.” Only 243 of the men asked said the same (52.7%).
That statistically significant poll finding lines up with what other scientists have discovered before.
Men don’t wash their hands as much as women, even though they should
“People who use urinals probably think they don’t need to wash their hands,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, previously told the New York Times.
But handwashing experts say that’s a bogus idea.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re peeing or you’re pooping, you should wash your hands,” Don Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers who has been studying handwashing for years, previously told Business Insider. “I think a good general rule of thumb is you should wash your hands any time you feel that they might be dirty.”
That advice becomes even more important during an infectious disease outbreak.
The most common way COVID-19 is spread is through person-to-person contact. Regular handwashing, along with keeping a safe distance from others who might be sick (that’s about six feet) as well as judiciously avoiding touching your face, especially around the eyes, nose, and mouth, are some of the greatest things you can do to stay healthy right now.
Wash your hands for 20 seconds, and scrub them well
Regular, vigorous, and proper handwashing should include soap, water, and last for around 20 seconds. That is long enough to hum “Happy Birthday to You” about twice in your head (or out loud, if you like), and it can really make a difference in stopping the spread of all kinds of infectious diseases.
Regular handwashing cuts down your risk of infection dramatically
Since the 1800s, health care professionals have known good hand hygiene is linked to lower infection rates. It was in the 1840s that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that when doctors and medical students handled cadavers before touching patients in the maternity ward, more mothers developed fevers and even died. He instituted an unpopular chlorine-washing rule and saw the death rates there tumble.
Similarly, during the Crimean War, nurse Florence Nightingale initiated handwashing rules and other hygiene measures in the British hospital where she worked. Death rates there dropped by two-thirds, providing some of the first hard evidence that proper hygiene saves lives.
Today, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimate better handwashing could cut diarrhoea death rates in half, and save more than a million lives (adults and children) every year. Regular hand washing can also cut your risk of developing a respiratory infection by 16%.
Pathogens like novel coronavirus droplets can get deposited on surfaces, including doorknobs, elevator buttons, toilet handles, phones, and store counters, which we all touch with our hands and fingers, often before we reach for our faces and mouths. (In the survey, women also said they’re wiping down those hard surfaces more often than men are, which lines up with data from The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: women around the world tend to spend around three hours a day doing unpaid work, while men do just about half that.)
Even a little more handwashing, especially while we’re travelling, could really help.
One 2019 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Risk Analysis, suggested that simply “increasing travellers engagement with hand hygiene at all airports” could reduce the impact of a pandemic by anywhere from 24% to 69%. (The study authors estimated that – at most – only about a quarter of people in airports at any given time clean their hands.) It’s certainly not the first evidence we have that handwashing really works, though.
So what are you waiting for? Scrub up already.
About our polling: SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weigh its sample based on race or income. A total of 1,051 respondents were collected February 27, 2020, a margin of error plus or minus 3.09 percentage points with a 95% confidence level.
- Read more:
- Trump held up a map showing the US is the best prepared country in the world for a pandemic, but only for the rich, influential, and fully insured
- 13 bogus claims about the coronavirus, including a fake coconut-oil cure and a false link to imported packages
- The rest of the world is ‘simply not ready’ for the coronavirus, according to a WHO envoy who just returned from China
- Do you really have to wash your hands every time you use the bathroom? The definitive answer, according to science