Handwashing is not just for coronavirus - how good hygiene could help reduce antibiotic use

A girl eats as she sits next to a handwashing station, while she sells fruits at the entrance of a medical center in Pikine, on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal March 9, 2020. Picture taken March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra - RC2RLF9CL1JQ
We must continue to promote regular handwashing, even after the pandemic.
Image: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
  • Coronavirus put focus on handwashing, but basic hygiene is crucial to stopping a variety of diseases.
  • Home hygiene has big role in reducing spread of antimicrobial resistance.
  • Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health.

One in six mobile phones have faecal matter on them. Globally, people wash their hands after using the toilet roughly one in five times. An office work station has 400 times more microbes than a toilet seat.

Improved everyday hygiene practices not only slow the spread of COVID-19, they also play a crucial role in reducing the risk of common infections and driving down antibiotic use. Home and community hygiene needs to be included as part of plans to reduce hundreds of thousands of deaths a year from antimicrobial resistance (AMR), according to a new paper developed on behalf of the Global Hygiene Council.

According to the paper, between November 2019 and March 2020 there were 16,500 deaths linked to SARS-CoV-2; in this same time 258,000 people would have died as a result of AMR.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Clean water, sanitation and targeted hygiene can significantly reduce the circulation of resistant bacteria in homes and communities, irrespective of a country’s overall social and economic development, the authors say. And while much of the focus on targeting AMR has been on measures by healthcare providers, there needs to be a reduction in the community. “We cannot allow hygiene in home and everyday life settings to become the weak link in the chain,” says the paper.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
The chain of infection in home and everyday environments.
Image: AJIC

Home hygiene steps

Handwashing is one of the simplest and most effective ways available to prevent disease. Hands are the main carriers of harmful germs, and washing them with soap reduces the risk of diarrheal diseases by almost half.

While many pathogenic organisms die quickly, particularly on dry surfaces, there are others, including rhinovirus – the cause of the common cold – and norovirus – which causes diarrhea and vomiting – which survive longer. Places like kitchen sinks, sponges and cloths, which are often damp, can provide a breeding ground.

There are also certain household activities which are particularly likely to be linked to harmful microbial spread including food handling, using the toilet, changing nappies, doing laundry, caring for pets and disposing of rubbish.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Among critical surfaces in the home, hands are the biggest culprit in spreading infection.
Image: AJIC

Stopping the spread

Following basic cleanliness practices and limiting disease spread will enable doctors to cut back on antibiotic use and slow the development of drug-resistant strains. This resistance has developed largely as a result of over-prescribing and misuse of antibiotics, amplified by their use in farming. Poor hygiene allows resistant strains to multiply and spread.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest health threats we face.
Image: UK government

Antibiotic resistance has been identified as one of the biggest threats to global health, with a growing number of infections such as pneumonia, gonorrhea and salmonellosis becoming harder to treat as a result.