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A sign reminding people to wash their hands is pictured outside a dormitory at the Washington State Patrol Fire Training Academy which has been designated as a 2019 novel coronavirus quarantine site for travelers from Hubei Province, China who have been exposed, are not yet symptomatic and cannot self-quarantine, in North Bend, Washington. - AFP

The death toll from the novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) outbreak in mainland China, up to yesterday, has risen to 638 according to China’s National Health Commission.

There appears to be no reprieve since it was first detected in December in Hubei province’s Wuhan City.

Reportedly, at least 28 countries have confirmed cases, with two deaths outside China, one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines. With deaths reported out of China, global worry escalates. Vaccines and antiviral medication have yet to be discovered although China is reportedly re-purposing a HIV drug as part of treatment.

Bloomberg recently reported that The Wuhan Institute of Virology has applied for a patent in China for the use of an experimental drug by Gilead Sciences Inc to treat the condition.

In an NST interview (December, 2018), Hospital Sungai Buloh’s former head of Infectious Diseases Unit Datuk Dr Christopher Lee — slightly over a year before the discovery of the Wuhan virus — had predicted that the next outbreak of infectious disease “could be more dangerous, especially with increased transmission of pathogens from animals to humans”. There would be recurring and emerging diseases in the future, he said, and as “humans move faster and easier around the world, the transmissions of infectious diseases will increase”.

Even with antibiotics and antivirals, the world would not be able to prevent infectious diseases from spreading if the public does not take preventive steps, primary of which is washing hands properly and effectively. There is a need to inculcate this practice from young and turn it into a habit. At homes, workplaces and public areas, hand-washing should be second nature, like eating or brushing teeth.

Stay home if you are unwell. Wear the mask if you have flu-like symptoms. Use a hand sanitiser when you are outside, but always wash your hands with soap and water when you return home.

The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says clean hands can prevent the spread of germs, including those that are resistant to antibiotics and are becoming difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

In the same interview, Dr Lee said with the proper technique, the simple act of washing hands with soap and water could significantly reduce the transmission of pathogens because hands are the most significant medium of pathogen transfer.

“Hand-washing is a form of social vaccination. Similar to vaccination, when you wash your hands, you protect yourself and others from being infected,” he said. If one’s hands are not clean, he can infect himself and others by touching a contaminated place or person. The World Health Organisation insists on it as “it’s a critical step in reducing infection. Forgetting it can cost lives”.

It’s easy — wet palms with water, then soap, rub hands, the back of hands, in between fingers and under the fingernails for 20 seconds. Rinse hands and dry them with a clean cloth or tissue. If you need a timer, sing Happy Birthday. That will cover 20 seconds. Hand-washing is a mundane activity and sometimes underrated — that’s why we forget to do it.

But in the face of a worldwide health emergency, this simple act can prevent infection and save lives.

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