Making air free from diseases

Okeoghene Oghenekaro, Nigeria 
(First published in News Agency of Nigeria, on 6 August 2013): Bidemi, a widowed petty trader, feels her life is crumbling because all her children frequently go down with cold. Joshua, her five-year old son, has just been discharged from the hospital after treating a debilitating cold. After medical tests, the doctor said Joshua had a respiratory tract infection the symptoms which Bidemi’s three other children are already having. She then wonders what could have caused this.

The doctor confirms her fears by telling her that he suspects her three other children are infected because they, perhaps, share a room that is not well-ventilated and breath the same air with her infected son. Medical experts have, on many instances, stressed the need for clean environment for good living. Dr Kenneth Iregbu, a clinical microbiologist, says influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, common cold, acute bacterial meningitis, among others are some common airborne diseases.

According to him, these diseases are caused by pathogens and distributed through the air by inhaling infected or contaminated air. “Tuberculosis is transmitted through the smallest particle of air that enables it to remain suspended in the air for a long time. Some infections you acquire when you are in close contact, like in a crowded environment, sleeping beside an infected person and the person sneezes or coughs or talks or if the person’s hands are contaminated and you shake him.

“For instance, if you have the virus that causes catarrh, just by shaking someone and the person touches his eyes or nose, one can get that infection. So, in terms of the air, it depends on the type of particle that carries them and the level of risk. If people are in a crowded place and someone is sneezing without taking the necessary precautions, he can infect almost everyone within one or two metre-distance instantly.”

By and large, Iregbu believes that it is better to prevent than to treat airborne diseases, insisting that one of the cardinal things to do about prevention is not to be around the sufferers of any of the airborne diseases. He also cautions sufferers to ensure that they don’t contaminate the air, advising them to cover their mouth with handkerchiefs or tissue when they cough or sneeze. “Such used handkerchiefs and paper tissues must also be disposed of properly and hands must be washed properly under running water.

“Rooms and houses must be properly ventilated with adequate windows so that the wind can blow across and remove whatever is contaminated and disperses them. “People should avoid raising dust to prevent infections; although vaccination against these infections is one of the best ways of prevention, vaccines are limited only to a few of the infections such as tuberculosis, influenza and meningitis,” he says.

Further to these precautions, Iregbu advised school authorities not to over-crowd classrooms, stressing that children must be taught basic hygiene rules such as hand washing as a way of disease prevention. “The classroom should be mopped with water not swept, so dust is not raised and ensure the classrooms are well ventilated, we prefer a well-ventilated classroom to a classroom with fans. “Parents have a big role to play by teaching the children basic hygiene rules and ensuring that they take their medication.

“People must make sure to protect the environment. By protecting the environment you are protecting people who will come into that environment,” he notes. To stress the need for avoiding contaminated air, the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, The Union, has always been campaigning against ‘shared air’ from the crowd.

It says a setting in which people share air in crowded neighbourhoods, public transportation and public facilities, such as health clinics, schools and prisons, is a breeding place for airborne diseases. The Union states that the overall acute respiratory infections kill more than 4.5 million adults and children each year worldwide.

“Globally, there are an estimated 156 million cases of pneumonia each year, 97 per cent in developing countries. “Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under five years while tuberculosis, an opportunistic airborne infection, is the leading cause of death among people living with HIV,” The Union says. According to the organisation, the risk is always greater where people in weak health, such as the aged or people with compromised immune systems, come into contact with people who are ill.

However, The Union underscores the need for proper infection control against airborne diseases to achieve safe air for everyone, particularly in public places. It calls on parents, school authorities, hospital management, government authorities and individuals to ensure that the environment is protected by making shared air safe for everyone.

Okeoghene Oghenekaro, Nigeria
Citizen News Service - CNS
August 2013
(First published in News Agency of Nigeria, on 6 August 2013)