Stay Clean, Stay Healthy!
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
MAN’S struggle to stay waged healthy has been almost since the dawn of history. But it has been a ‘losing battle’ against disease, plague and epidemic. Despite advances in science and medicine, people continue to get sick and die.
At one time, it was thought that diseases were caused by evil spirits, and physicians fought this influence with charms or incantations, even with bloodletting. Sometimes herbs were ‘used, doubtless with greater benefit. It was the discovery of germs, however, that resulted in more successful treatments of sick people. And this led to an understanding of the relationship between good health and cleanliness.
Today it is understood that many maladies—the communicable diseases—are the result of three factors: the agent, the environment, and the host. The agent is the original cause of the sickness. Disease agents include bacteria (causing such maladies as typhoid fever and cholera), protozoa (resulting in diseases like amoebic dysentery), viruses (causing polio, infectious hepatitis, and so forth), parasites (causing malaria, and so forth), and fungi (responsible for problems like athlete’s foot). There are also nonmicrobic agents like lead and mercury, which can cause poisoning.
The disease agent exists in what are called reservoirs. These may be an already sick person, a carrier (someone who carries the agent, but who has no symptoms of the disease), an animal, or even a part of the inanimate environment. When the agent is expelled from the reservoir—by coughing, sneezing or in some other way—it may be picked up and transported to a potential host, that is, someone who is susceptible to catching the disease. If the agent finds the right way into the host, illness will result. The importance of the way that the agent enters is seen in the case of tetanus. If the germ enters through the mouth, it is harmless. However, if it gets in through a deep cut in the skin, the host probably will become sick with the disease.
Today men try to break this chain of disease transmission by sanitation. By this means they endeavor to control the environment so as to prevent the disease agent from getting to a new host. The relative success of this approach has been seen in many countries where garbage has been disposed of properly, sewage has been treated and the government has been able to provide for a clean water supply. In these lands diseases like typhoid fever, cholera and plague have almost been eliminated. Even in the more developed nations, however, people still fall victim to communicable diseases like influenza. Especially is this true during times of crisis, when public services break down and diseases can surface once again. These facts emphasize that sanitation is not just a government responsibility. All of us should be aware of how disease travels and what we individually can do to prevent it.
Spreading by Touch
The world today is in the grip of a pandemic of venereal disease, spread almost entirely by the direct contact of sexual intercourse. These sexually transmitted infections are among the principal diseases spread by contact transmission.
Controlling venereal diseases is largely a matter of moral cleanness, while physical cleanliness will help to prevent the spread of many other maladies. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10) Regarding the latter, one doctor said: “Washing your hands after using the toilet and before eating should be as automatic as breathing.” As a matter of fact, diseases spread by contact transmission should be the easiest for an individual to avoid.
Food and Water
Humans use automobiles or buses as vehicles for travel. Similarly, disease agents can travel in vehicles—water, milk or even food. This is called vehicle transmission. Milk, so good for growing children, may be a disease carrier if it comes from a dirty or infected animal, which is why, in Western lands, milk must be pasteurized. Many people prefer to boil milk if there is any doubt about it. Food can carry sickness if prepared by unwashed hands or if it has been in contact with rodents or insects. But maybe the most commonly contaminated material is water. We cannot live more than four or five days without it, but if our drinking water is contaminated, it will be a vehicle of entry into our body for countless millions of disease agents. And what disease agents can travel in water? Bacteria, protozoa, worms, viruses and nonmicrobic poisons.
Nowadays, many modern cities are supplied with chemically treated water; but drinking water should never be taken for granted, especially in times of flood, earthquake or similar crisis. In case of doubt, it is wise to treat water perhaps with chloride of lime, or, if that is not available, tincture of iodine. In the absence of these substances, it can be sterilized by boiling for at least ten minutes. Remember, though, that water can be contaminated after boiling as well as before. So the sterilized water should be kept in a clean and protected place until it is used.
In the countryside, particularly in developing lands, households rely on different water sources that must be protected from contamination. Those using rainwater, for example, should be sure that no dirt gets washed into the storage tank along with the rainwater. Also, the tank should be protected from insects, rodents and other animals. Persons relying on surface water, such as streams or brooks, are almost certainly drinking polluted water. It is nearly impossible to protect these from contamination by animals or runoff (rainwater running in from the surface of the ground). The only exception might be a fairly fast-running spring-fed stream where the water looks clean and sparkling and where there are no residents on the watershed spilling pollution into it.
Naturally occurring springs are better, although most householders build a concrete cover around these to protect them from animals and surface runoff. Possibly the best sources, however, are wells, particularly deep wells. Shallow ones need to be examined to make sure that they are not being contaminated by someone’s latrine. Even deep wells can be polluted by surface water runoff. Therefore, many well owners build a small platform around the well, to prevent the surface water from getting in.
Remember, too, that clean water is easily polluted. Even if it comes from a clean well, the water is not fit to drink if it is carried in a dirty container or comes in contact with dirty hands.
Another class of vehicles that germs can ride on are called fomites. These are objects (such as towels or cups) that come in contact with a sick person, and then with someone else. The new handler or user inherits the payload of disease agents left by the previous individual. Fomites should be washed in boiling water to make them harmless.
Insects and Vermin
Between the years 1347 and 1350 C.E., from a quarter to a half of the whole population of Europe died of the Black Death. This disease, also called bubonic plague, is one of the many maladies spread by what is called vector transmission. “Vector” means “carrier,” and in the field of sanitation it denotes an animal or an insect that carries the disease agent to the new host. Mostly, vectors are insects. Some, like the rat fleas that spread bubonic plague and the mosquitoes that carry malaria, actually inject the disease into the new host by biting or piercing the skin. Others, such as flies and cockroaches, walk on contaminated areas, particularly human excrement, and then walk on food, or on areas where food is being prepared. Diseases like cholera and typhoid fever can be spread in this way.
To protect themselves from malaria-carrying mosquitoes, many people in the tropics sleep under a mosquito net. Governments have tried to limit the breeding of such mosquitoes by eliminating their breeding places. Householders can cooperate with these efforts by removing potential ‘breeding grounds’ in or near their homes—things such as bottles with water in the bottom, stagnant puddles or even drains not properly covered.
Certain insects are a bigger problem. In some places, such creatures as cockroaches and flies are not regarded as enemies, just as nuisances. But they truly are health hazards, and their movement in a home should be prevented as much as possible. Dirty kitchens, however, with cracks or holes where insects can hide, are like a playground for them. Garbage not properly covered is an open invitation to flies, cockroaches and vermin. Also, hogs raised near the house encourage flies to congregate. By all means, insects and rodents should be kept away from family members and from food. You can never tell where they have been!
Clean habits, then, will help to break this link in the chain of infection. Another way to reduce the potential for harm from vectors is by seeing to the proper disposal of human waste or excrement. To persons living in cities having proper sewage disposal facilities, this may not seem like a problem. But in many parts of the world, diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery are spread because of improper waste disposal. In this regard, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, they were commanded to go to a private place outside the camp, dig a hole with a peg, and bury their excrement there. (Deut. 23:12-14) It may be noted that when one digs into the soil, the first few feet are teeming with tiny organisms that will quickly work on the waste and render it harmless. If the waste is left on the surface, however, insects can crawl over it and carry diseases back to the household. Also, if it is left untreated and is used as fertilizer, such disease agents as amoebas and worms are likely to be transferred onto the food crop being fertilized.
So, burying is the best way of handling this problem if there are no sewage facilities. Of course, if there is a family living in one place and not moving around like the Israelites, something a little more sophisticated will be needed than just a peg or stick to dig a hole! It is surprising, however, how simple it is to make a sanitary toilet. A pit dug about six feet (2 meters) deep, and three feet (1 meter) square, raised around the top to keep surface water from draining in, with a floor cover and a seat that can be covered to prevent insects and rodents from entering, will satisfactorily serve a family for some years. Of course, more sophisticated units can be used if money is available. But there is one thing to watch. These facilities should be built well away (and, if possible, downhill) from any water source.
Carried in the Air
After the trauma of the first global war, in 1918 the world faced another grim experience. In one year, ten million more persons died during the Spanish flu than the number killed during the entire war. Most of those who suffered from the sickness probably caught it from the very air they breathed. Influenza is one of those diseases communicated by means of what is called aerial transmission. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, he sprays the air with little droplets of water that are teeming with germs just waiting to get into a new host. Fortunately, sunlight and dryness tend to kill most germs. While they are still alive, however, they can be breathed in from the air. Aside from influenza, some diseases that can be spread in this way are tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, scarlet fever and whooping cough. Yet, the spread of these illnesses can be lessened greatly by clean personal habits, such as using a tissue or handkerchief when sneezing (and disposing of the tissue in a sanitary way) and not spitting indiscriminately.
Yes, indeed, sanitary, or clean, habits have a part to play in the matter of staying healthy. In many cases, of course, the good habits we have may prevent our disease from being spread to someone else, whereas others may not be so considerate. However, the principle of ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ surely will guide a Christian in this regard. (Matt. 22:39) True, some people become fanatical in the matter of cleanliness and sanitation; so the spirit of a sound mind is needed too. We can be sanitary, but we cannot live in an antiseptic environment. Besides, Jehovah God has provided wonderful power right within our own bodies to overcome the attacks of most diseases. Yet, it is wise and loving to be reasonably clean and sanitary, and thus not spread germs unnecessarily.
Attention to sanitation and cleanliness will help us, though this will not remove sickness from the earth. For that, Christians patiently await God’s new order wherein Jehovah will remove sickness and other distresses afflicting mankind. At that time, there will be a full realization of the Bible’s promise that “no resident will say: ‘I am sick.’” (Isa. 33:24) Then, finally, man’s struggle to stay healthy will have been won.