I recently read the subtitles on a video as a bright young girl led viewers round her refugee camp. She took us to a communal standpipe, filled a small jerrycan with water, and returned to prepare a simple meal for her dependents She apologised for having no soap to use against Covid-19 before carefully washing her hands in the precious water.
You may think her little knowledge was dangerous, but the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress the importance of frequent handwashing with soap and water, and anyone regularly applying alcohol-based sanitiser to their hands instead risks endangering the health of themselves and the wider community.
No treatment or vaccine for Covid-19 is available yet, but some experts fear that the coronaviruses on which their research is based may be mutating into more virulent strains, so even when a vaccine is discovered it might not be effective against them. We must all do our part to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the Virgin Islands now.
Most bacteria and viruses on the hands can be effectively killed by fully coating both hands with the right amount of hand sanitiser (containing alcohol of at least 60 degrees proof) and rubbing them together for a minimum of 30 seconds until dry. The alcohol dissolves the virus’s outer layer and disrupts its metabolism but isn’t effective on all germs that may be on your hands and does not clean them properly. Better to wash them with soap and water.
The American Chemistry Council’s Center for Biocide Chemistries has released a list of products approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency for use against Covid-19, including several disinfecting wipes, but it didn’t recommend them as substitutes for other hygienic practices like proper handwashing.
The CDC recommend cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily, including “tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.” Surfaces visibly dirty should first be cleaned with soap and water and then disinfected with approved wipes. The agency’s “Clean & Disinfect” coronavirus guide warns that Covid-19 may remain on surfaces for days.
Soap and water
The CDC say that alcohol-based hand sanitisers do not remove dirt and are less effective at killing bacteria and viruses on soiled hands. So you should wash your hands with soap and water after gardening, housework, changing babies, taking out trash, or cleaning a litterbox to stop grime accumulating — and always before touching food.
Soap and water should be provided for everyone in government offices, stores, banks and public places like parks, to restrict the need to use hand sanitisers for times when soap and water are not available. Relying on alcohol-based hand sanitiser to kill the germs on your hands may have unpleasant side effects
According to the CDC, hand sanitiser is good at killing bad microbes, but also kills healthy bacterial communities beneficial to our bodies, so use only if really needed. Stick to handwashing around your house or when not in frequent, close contact with other people.
Using hand sanitiser daily may create stronger bugs as their antibacterial ingredients may promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi, which may tolerate normal antibiotic medication, causing the deaths of otherwise treatable patients.
In 2008, British researchers probing the spread of the MRSA in hospital wards found that the superbug could be spread through disinfecting wipes, so their most effective use is only once on one surface.
The American Cleaning Institute emphasises that the instructions on a disinfecting-wipes container should always be followed precisely against Covid-19, as wiping disinfectant off too early may help clean, but not adequately sanitise, the surface, and each disinfectant spray or wipe is formulated differently, taking longer or shorter to thoroughly disinfect.
The labels should indicate which surfaces can or cannot be safely sanitised. In general, disinfecting wipes shouldn’t be used on absorbent surfaces like rugs or bare wood, but if in doubt test a small surface area first. Disinfecting wipes may work better than sprays, which are more likely to be wiped off prematurely
Danger to children
The CDC advise keeping such wipes out of children’s reach and allowing their use only under supervision. Most alcohol in hand sanitisers evaporates from the skin, but children may be tempted to imbibe it if “scented, brightly coloured, or attractively packaged,” risking alcohol poisoning.
Used properly, disinfecting wipes can be safe to use on children’s toys, but notices on containers warn, “Keep out of reach of children.” One parent in Massachusetts became concerned after discovering students were being given Clorox wipes to clean their desks and tables and complained to the US Food and Drug Administration.