Public health begins at home

United Nations Covid-19 Response
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How often have you left a public loo and thought, “Yuk! That person didn’t wash their hands after using the loo and is now touching their burger”, or worse, picking up food and handing it to children?  And then there are the adults and kids who wipe their noses on their bare hands, touch the rails on buses and backs of chairs in cafes, or just sit their picking and flicking.

We’ve all seen people who go out for fresh air and drop their food wrappings anywhere they like. That presents an infection risk. So does dumping used face masks on pavements, beaches or parkland. This is not just a moan, but a sense that we must each do something to regain our pride in clean public places and spaces if we are to help contain and suppress Covid-19, along with other nasty diseases.

How to curb the spread of infectious diseases was something taught by the junior Red Cross many years ago. Our motto was ‘I serve’. We began each Saturday morning session with a pledge: “I pledge myself to care for my own health and that of others, to help the sick and suffering, especially children and to look of all other children all over the world as my friend”.

Under 11s were taught the basics of ‘first aid’ and ‘home nursing’. The programme is more ambitious nowadays. But now, as then, it is infused with a strong sense of working together for the good of humanity. As junior school-aged children, it meant that we learned what the recovery position was, when to move someone into it, how to ensure they weren’t choking and how to check pulse rate, breathing and temperature. We also learned mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, how to call an ambulance (in the days without mobiles), and what kind of information medics might need coming to an emergency.

The really fun bit was learning bandaging and, for the teens, how to use a syringe to measure fluid medicines and administer medication, using an orange as practice. We were also taught about noting and recognising symptoms, what pain relief tablets could be taken in which doses without a doctor’s prescription, and how to take and record a person’s temperature with a glass thermometer placed under the tongue or in the armpit. Oh, and how to take and record blood pressure.

First aid was seen to be more exciting than ‘home nursing’ because we did play-acting practice. But home nursing was probably more useful. It ranged from how to care for an ill person while ensuring hydration and appropriate nutrition, to how to make notes for a doctor.

Home nursing has never been more relevant than now. Its basic messages were:

  • Wash your hands before and after entering the ‘sick room’, where the ill person was supposed to stay in relative isolation, preferably in bed until the worst was over, and then including any vital convalescence;
  • Get the sick person to use separate towels, sponges and utensils;
  • Keep the sick room well aired;
  • IF the sick person had an infectious disease like mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, rubella or measles, keep visitors to an absolute minimum;
  • Ensure visitors wash hands before and after leaving the sick person, and dry their hands on a separate towel;
  • Wash hands before touching food; and
  • Wash hands after using ANY public facilities, but especially public loos.

This emphasis on responsibility for personal hygiene and hand washing served a public purpose. It was designed to limit the onward transmission of the disease to family, friends and the wider community.

Public health relies on us all doing our bit to limit the spread of disease. Social distancing is the modern term for people keeping their distance from someone who’s unwell. It makes sense when someone has a bad cold or the flu. In fact, we could all help cut the spread of common infections, including horrible vomiting and diarrhoea, by following those basic hygiene tips.

Today that means not only rigorous hand-washing routines, but also wearing face coverings so that when we speak, the minute droplets on our breath don’t infect the air around us. You wearing a mask protects me, and me wearing one protects you. And unless a cloth mask or single use face mask is used as well, the use of full-face Perspex face coverings are not recommended. This is because they force your breath down and out below the chin.

Telling kids to sing happy birthday and count to 20 when handwashing – which easily becomes a competition over who can do it the fastest – isn’t that much help. Showing them how to wash their hands is far better. Giving them the opportunity to be part of a healthy society depends on them playing their part in shaping it. And the best bit about those home nursing and first aid sessions was that what we learned was fun and of lasting use.

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