It is something that many of us do instinctively, almost as muscle memory, several times a day. But rarely has it been as important as it has in the last six months.
Amidst the arsenal of weapons against coronavirus – masks, self-isolation and social distancing – one has been particularly easy to overlook: handwashing.
As the coronavirus emerged as a worldwide health emergency in February, health agencies scrambled to advise people how to protect themselves from the new virus. One suggestion – repeated day after day, on news bulletins, adverts and expert interviews – was to wash hands with soap, in warm water, for at least 20 seconds.
The World Health Organization published a graphic – widely memed since – showing the correct way to wash hands: a how-to familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a bar or a restaurant.
Six months on, the confused global picture over spikes and localised lockdowns – like the curfew recently imposed on Melbourne in Australia – has pushed the handwashing advice to the margins. Amid the growing backlash in some quarters against wearing masks and face coverings, this other silver bullet against coronavirus infection has been edged out of the spotlight. One Ethiopian observational study, still to be peer-reviewed, found less than 1% of more than 1,000 people visiting hospitals washed their hands in the correct way. But has the advice changed? (Read about why some people don’t wash their hands.)
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Not at all, say the experts. If anything, they have doubled down on its efficacy.
Thomas Gilbert, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says coronavirus’s chemical make-up can be disrupted by nothing more specialised than cheap soap and warm water.
“These viruses have membranes that surround the genetic particles that are called lipid membranes, because they have an oily, greasy structure,” he says. “It’s this kind of structure than be neutralised by soap and water.” Dissolving this outer “envelope” breaks the virus cell up, and the genetic material – the RNA which hijacks human cells to make copies of the virus – is swept away and destroyed.