Spread of MERS Reminds Us of Importance of Hand Hygiene

Spread of MERS Reminds Us of Importance of Hand Hygiene

Jim Arbogast


By Jim Arbogast, Ph.D.

Hygiene Sciences and Public Health Advancements Vice President, GOJO Industries

Public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are closely monitoring the increase in cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).  Cases of MERS were first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia.  Since that time, at least 572 cases have been reported leading to 173 deaths, with the vast majority being from Saudi Arabia.

MERS Confirmed Case in the United States

On May 2, 2014, the first confirmed case of MERS was reported in the United States and a subsequent case on May 16.  The two cases of the virus in the United States were both healthcare workers who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia.  The CDC also reported evidence of an apparent past infection of a third US individual who was a business associate of one of the infected healthcare workers.  The CDC is still investigating but reported that the only physical contact the associate had was a handshake at a business meeting.

With the increase in the number of MERS cases in the US, the CDC is testing all people that were in contact with the two individuals who contracted MERS.  According to the CDC, they are taking this aggressive approach not only to protect public safety but to learn more about how the virus is transmitted and help the global community gain a better understanding of the virus.

The virus, called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), is part of a large family of enveloped viruses that cause a wide range of illnesses, from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed 800 people worldwide after it first appeared in China in 2002.

The WHO is not considering the MERS virus to be a global health emergency at this time.  Likewise, the CDC is not recommending that anyone change their travel plans, but rather to pay attention to your health during and after the trip if you are traveling to countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula.

For healthcare professionals, the CDC offers infection prevention and control recommendations on its website. For the general public, the CDC in their Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Frequently Asked Questions and Answers, provides these tips, which are good reminders for everyday hygiene:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.

If your hands do come in contact with MERS, the CDC recommendations are intended to remove the germ from your skin with a hand wash or to destroy the viral envelope with an alcohol based hand sanitizer. There is ample evidence ethanol as a skin care active ingredient can make a difference against enveloped viruses (such as influenza) when formulated well and used appropriately; the evidence is not so clear with non-alcohol based sanitizers.   

When should I wash and sanitize my hands?

The MERS situation is a good reminder there are many key times you should wash or sanitize your hands to help prevent illness and infection.  Important steps for good hand hygiene are to wash or sanitize your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer:

  • Before preparing food;
  • Before eating;
  • Before and after caring for someone that is sick or around someone who has a cold;
  • After using the bathroom;
  • After sneezing or coughing; and
  • After touching anything that may be a transmission vector of infection causing germs, such as the subway railing, grocery carts, diapers, raw food, animals and trash.

The entire handwashing process should take at least 20 seconds or the amount of time to sing Happy Birthday twice.  A good procedure is to wet hands with water, apply enough soap to create a lather to cover all hand surfaces, rub hands palm to palm and carefully scrub fingers, back and front of hands and each thumb.  Rinse hands with water and gently dry hands with a clean paper towel.

The entire hand sanitizing process should take approximately15 seconds.  Apply a dime-sized amount of hand sanitizer , enough to cover all surfaces of your hands, rub the sanitizer into the palms of your hands, fingers, back and front of hands and thumbs.  Continuing rubbing hands together until hands are dry.

Good hand hygiene is important every day in helping to protect your health and those around you.  To help make hand hygiene a priority in your home, office or school, go to GOJO Hand Hygiene Tools and Materials for videos and posters you can use to share the importance of hand hygiene.

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