New Delhi: Improving the rates of handwashing by travellers passing through just 10 of the world’s leading airports could significantly reduce the spread of many infectious diseases, including the novel coronavirus, according to a study.
The greater the improvement in people’s handwashing habits at airports, the more dramatic the effect on slowing the disease, said researchers, including those from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.
The findings, which deal with infectious diseases in general including the flu, were published in late December, just before the recent coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.
However, the study, published in the journal Risk Analysis, could apply to any such disease, and are relevant to the current outbreak, the researchers noted.
People can be surprisingly casual about washing hands even in crowded locations like airports, they said. Travellers from different parts of the world are touching surfaces such as chair armrests, check-in kiosks, security checkpoint trays, and restroom doorknobs and faucets, the researchers said.
Based on data from previous research by groups, including the American Society for Microbiology, the team estimated that on average, only about 20 per cent of people in airports have clean hands — meaning they have been washed with soap and water, for at least 15 seconds, within the last hour or so.
The other 80 per cent are potentially contaminating everything they touch with whatever germs they may be carrying, the researchers said.
“Seventy per cent of the people who go to the toilet wash their hands afterwards,said Professor Christos Nicolaides from the University of Cyprus.
“The other 30 per cent don’t. And of those that do, only 50 per cent do it right,” said Nicolaides, who is also a fellow at MIT.
Others, he said, just rinse briefly in some water, rather than using soap and water and spending the recommended 15 to 20 seconds washing.
That figure, combined with estimates of exposure to the many potentially contaminated surfaces that people come into contact with in an airport, leads to the team’s estimate that about 20 per cent of travellers in an airport have clean hands.
Improving handwashing at all of the world’s airports to triple that rate, so that 60 per cent of travellers to have clean hands at any given time, would have the greatest impact, potentially slowing global disease spread by almost 70 per cent, the researchers noted.
Deploying such measures at so many airports and reaching such a high level of compliance may be impractical, they said.
However, the study suggests that a significant reduction in disease spread could still be achieved by just picking the 10 most significant airports based on the initial location of a viral outbreak.
Focusing on handwashing messages in those 10 airports could potentially slow the disease spread by as much as 37 per cent, the researchers estimate.