SINGAPORE: Demand for hand sanitiser has grown exponentially in recent months. I have seen staggering purchase levels in some countries, stores running out of stock and rapid increases in production.
However, while hand sanitisers have an important role to play in keeping us safe when we can’t get to a sink, the COVID-19 pandemic also reminds us of the importance of a humble bar of soap.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that hand washing with soap and water is one of the most effective and accessible ways to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
MORE THAN A SIMPLE BAR OF SOAP
A bar of soap is one of the longstanding primary weapons we have in our current fight against the spread of the infection, especially in the developing world where it is so much more accessible than hand sanitiser.
In India, for instance, access to smaller bars of soap have enabled millions of lower income households to improve their health and hygiene.
Yet we can easily overlook and underestimate the pivotal role soap plays in saving lives. In fact, soap has been helping to protect us for over 2,500 years.
But what might seem like a simple solution actually harnesses quite a complex chemistry.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, belongs to the family of enveloped viruses.
Enveloped viruses have a jacket made up of lipids and proteins that allows them to exist and helps them to enter human cells when your hands touch your face.
READ: Commentary: COVID-19 – Empty buildings and water sitting in plumbing can give rise to waterborne diseases
Unfortunately, human skin is an ideal surface for germs, including enveloped viruses, to stick to. The proteins and fatty acids on the skin’s surface bind to the germs like glue.
Water alone cannot effectively break this interaction. Soapy water, however, is very different.
Washing your hands using soap and water has a dual effect. Soap cleverly targets and interferes with the enveloped virus’ outer membrane so it cannot bind to the skin and it also washes the virus away from your body and down the sink.
“They act like crowbars and destabilise the whole system,” Professor Pall Thordarson, acting head of chemistry at the University of New South Wales and an expert on supramolecular chemistry, recently said to the media.
HELPING THE COMMUNITY
The power of hand washing and soap is not new.
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian-born doctor, was among the first to advocate the importance of hand washing. After he started work at Vienna’s General Hospital in 1846, he noticed a high mortality rate among women delivered by doctors.
His investigations showed that there was a correlation between the lack of personal hygiene of the doctors and the mortality rate of the delivering mothers.
After he initiated a mandatory hand washing policy for the doctors, the mortality rate for women delivered by doctors fell from 18 per cent to 1 per cent.
Soap was crucial in fighting the spread of cholera in 1893, in reducing the spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu, which reportedly claimed the lives of 50 million people worldwide, and then again during the 2003 SARS outbreak and the H1N1 flu in 2009.
While medicine has advanced and access to information has increased significantly since these past health crises, in the absence of a vaccine, public health efforts globally are focused on protective measures such as quarantines, limiting public gatherings and personal hygiene.
And so, today, soap is once again in the spotlight.
But soap plays a key role in maintaining good hygiene even when we are not in a pandemic or outbreak.
We have seen too many villages and communities in India, Vietnam and Kenya go through the pain of witnessing children under the age of five die due to preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.
According to the WHO, these two diseases claim the lives of 1.2 million children globally. However, studies have shown that hand hygiene is an extremely effective tool in helping reduce the spread of disease.
That is why getting people to wash their hands properly with soap and water is important. But hand washing is not done enough.
In March, the international non-government organisation Wateraid revealed a worrying statistic - that four out of five people globally do not wash their hands after going to the toilet.
As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of soap, sanitisers and handwash with nearly 20 per cent of global market share, Unilever realises the importance of helping communities to improve hand hygiene through its soap brand Lifebuoy.
With awareness and the practice of hand washing so low among many societies around the world, Lifebuoy has been helping to address this by running one of the world’s largest behavioural change programmes on hand washing.
Since 2010, we have reached 1 billion people in more than 30 countries in order to improve people’s health and hygiene.
We are also currently increasing production and donating over 20 million products, including soap, hand sanitisers and antibacterial wipes to various organisations and initiatives all over the world, including here in Singapore where we have donated tens of thousands of hygiene products to help protect people at the front-line.
These include hospital workers through the Healthcare Services Employees' Union, taxi drivers and the vulnerable elderly in partnership with Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities.
To ensure we help keep our communities safe, we have also gone as far as referring to other brands in our public service advertising to help educate and remind people about the importance of handwashing with any soap, whatever is closest to them, in the hope of curbing virus transmission and keeping people safe.
Soap really is a wonder-product which puts saving lives right at our fingertips.
While governments are very rightly spending trillions of dollars to shore up global economies and pharmaceutical companies are investing heavily in developing a vaccine, until this is made available, the humble bar of soap remains one of humanity’s best hopes.
Samir Singh is Executive Vice President, Global Skin Cleansing at Unilever.