Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This summer’s news is a powerful—and scary—example of that. Worse than any movie coming out of Hollywood, the Ebola epidemic sweeping western Africa is turning into a real-life horror. As I write this, more than 1,000 people have died.
When I read about Ebola, one encouraging fact surfaces again and again: that simple public health measures really do work. In times like these, it’s comforting to be reminded that something as basic as soap and water can be lifesaving.
First off, here’s a quick primer on the Ebola virus. The virus, first diagnosed in 1976 and taking its name from the Ebola River, can be transmitted human-to-human through both direct and indirect contact with any bodily fluids of an infected person. That means direct contact with an infected person’s blood, saliva, mucus, urine, feces or semen, or touching something that has been contaminated, like a blood-soaked rag. If one is actually exposed (which is incredibly unlikely, unless you’re in rural west Africa) then there is a strict protocol to follow. If you’re at risk—or just afraid—there’s just one thing you need to do: Wash your hands with soap and water.
It really is that simple. A virus is racing through western Africa and one of the most effective tools we have in our arsenal is also the simplest. Washing your hands actually has a real impact in controlling the spread of Ebola, just like with any other virus. So basic, but so very effective. Just grab that bar of soap, turn on the water, sing the ABCs while you lather up the fronts and backs of your hands and in between your fingers, then rinse, dry and relax.
It wasn’t always this way, you know. In the 19th century, hand washing was not routine. We have Ignaz Semmelweis to thank for making it a common practice. Armed with a Master’s in medicine, with a specialization in midwifery, Semmelweis studied childbirth fever in Vienna and made the connection that this devastating postpartum illness could be avoided if doctors washed their hands with soap and water. And so one of the most effective public health measures in human history was born.
There is so much we can’t control in our lives. But whether we’re fighting a terrible and destructive virus in Africa or a more mundane virus close to home, we can do something to protect ourselves and those we love. We can wash our hands. Simple as that.