The Oxford English Dictionary describes hygiene as “conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness”, which is the state of being clean or being kept clean, i.e. free from dirt.

Dirt and disease are allies as micro-organisms breed and flourish in dirt. Many of the infectious diseases that afflict the population are generally due to dirty habits and surroundings.

Good personal and environmental hygiene practices go a long way to reducing the burden of infectious diseases in individuals, their families, healthcare systems and societies globally.

According to the Global Hygiene Council, 2.7 million newborn babies die within the first month of life; a child dies every minute from diarrhoea; and 220 million are afflicted by foodborne diarrhoeal diseases.

These can be reduced or minimised by good hygiene practices, particularly hand hygiene.

It is estimated that inadequate hand hygiene practices affect 80% of the world’s population and that 60% do not wash their hands after using the toilet, sneezing and handling pets.

If everyone washes their hands routinely, a million deaths could be prevented annually and the risk of infectious diseases could be reduced by up to 59%.

Micro-organisms on surfaces that are touched often or used for the preparation of food can be transmitted easily by the hands to the eyes, nose, mouth or other surfaces.

Poor hand hygiene is a leading cause of diarrhoeal diseases when people are in close contact or the food is prepared by an infected person.

Common diseases like influenza and respiratory infections are spread by sneezing and touching surfaces with contaminated hands. These viruses spread easily among people in close contact, such as families and school children, as these viruses can survive for several hours on the hands and up to 24-48 hours on commonly touched hard surfaces such as door handles and toys.

Personal Hygiene

Washing your hands before handling food is a good hygiene practice to stay healthy.

The basics of housekeeping include hygienic food preparation, washing of dishes and utensils, proper garbage disposal, regular cleaning of surfaces and regular washing of clothes, bedding and sheets. — AFP

Frequent hand-washing reduces the spread of micro-organisms and foodborne diseases.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the hands be wet with clean running water and then soap be applied to the fingers, fingernails, palms and wrists for at least 20 seconds, to be followed by rinsing thoroughly and drying with fresh paper towel(s) or an air dryer.

If soap and water are inaccessible, an alcohol-based hand sanitiser can be used instead.

The hands should always be washed before handling or eating food; after using the toilet; after handling dirty objects or garbage; after blowing the nose, sneezing or coughing; after handling animals; before and after changing a diaper or handling a small child; and before and after contact with a sick person.

It is advisable to avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth with the hands.

When sneezing, blowing the nose or coughing, the nose and mouth have to be covered with tissue, which should then be thrown into a covered bin.

If no tissues are available, the sneezing or coughing should not be into the hands, but into the upper sleeve or the inside of the bent elbow.

It is advisable to stay at home when one or one’s child has an upper respiratory infection.

Mouth hygiene reduces and prevents oral and gum problems. The teeth have to be brushed at least twice a day with flossing to remove particles from under the gum line and between the teeth, areas inaccessible to the toothbrush.

Regular visits to the dentist are advisable for assessment and recommendations on mouth hygiene.

Regular bathing is necessary to reduce the micro-organisms that contribute to skin problems, especially in the armpits and feet.

Whether to have a bath or shower is influenced by personal choice and availability.

When there is dirt on one’s body, bathing is necessary before touching someone else or preparing food.

The hair has to be washed as often as needed. It is important to dry oneself thoroughly after the bath or shower to prevent growth of micro-organisms.

Environmental Hygiene

When the home is kept clean, it promotes health as it reduces micro-organisms and prevents breeding of insects that transmit infectious diseases.

The basics of housekeeping include hygienic food preparation, washing of dishes and utensils, proper garbage disposal, regular cleaning of surfaces and regular washing of clothes, bedding and sheets.

Frequently touched surfaces at home such as door handles and taps should be cleaned regularly and disinfected. It has been reported that children can touch surfaces up to 300 times in 30 minutes, thereby increasing their risk of infection.

Food preparation surfaces have to be cleaned before and after use. The hands have to be washed before and after preparing food.

Food should not be prepared by anyone who has a diarrhoeal infection.

Food should be freshly cooked to a sufficiently high temperature and eaten immediately. If kept for consumption at another time, it should be refrigerated to a temperature of 5°C.

Water used for drinking and food preparation should be clean. If unsure, water should be boiled before drinking. All water storage vessels should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

Soiled or contaminated garments such as underwear, non-disposable nappies, etc, should be washed using a hot wash, i.e. more than 60°C, or by using a laundry disinfectant if washing is done at a lower temperature.

This is because the micro-organisms in the soiled or contaminated garments can survive low temperature washing and contaminate other items in the wash.

Other items such as clothes, bedding and so on can be washed together in a hot wash or with a laundry disinfectant at temperatures lower than 60°C.

Mosquitoes transmit common infectious diseases like dengue and malaria. The best way to reduce the mosquito population is to eliminate the sites where mosquitoes breed like still water held in artificial containers in and around the home – flower pots, broken bottles, plastic cups, roof gutters, used tyres, etc.

These artificial containers should be emptied and kept empty all the time.

Personal and environmental hygiene are vital as human health is dependent on it. Clean bodies, homes, buildings and environment are the prerequisites of good health.

Dr Milton Lum is a past president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners Associations, Malaysia, and the Malaysian Medical Association. The views expressed do not represent that of any organisation the writer is associated with. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.