Within recent weeks, Barbados has been caught up in the cold.
Although many who have been afflicted with the viral respiratory tract illness have often described it as the ’flu’, medical experts have informed us that it is indeed the rhinovirus, or common cold virus, that has been causing the problem.
While rhinovirus infections occur throughout the year, in temperate climates there are distinct peaks of illness in the fall and spring. The fall peak generally occurs in late August or September in the Northern Hemisphere.
By early November, rhinovirus prevalence declines, usually remaining low throughout the late fall, winter, and early spring. A second period of increased rhinovirus activity frequently occurs in April and May. Although the overall incidence of colds is low during the summer months, rhinovirus accounts for up to 50 per cent of the illnesses that occur during this season.
While the reason for this seasonality is not clear, it may be a result of both viral biology and human behaviour. Rhinovirus survives best in the environment during periods of high humidity.
Symptoms include nasal dryness or irritation, sore throat, nasal discharge, nasal congestion and sneezing, headaches, facial and air pressure and loss of sense of smell and taste.
In order to stave off this virus, Senior Medical Officer of Health (North), Dr Leslie Rollock, has encouraged us to continue practising good hand hygiene, adding: “These practices include washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and drying them with disposable tissue. If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is recommended.”
Other practices which limit the spread of the virus include using proper respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette, avoid touching your eyes nose and mouth with unwashed hands, limiting contact with infected people and frequent cleaning and disinfecting.
A decade ago, Barbados reported its first case of 2009 H1N1, which was commonly referred to as swine flu. In a medical journal article titled: Response to the challenges of pandemic H1N1 in a small island state: the Barbadian experience, authors Dr Natasha Sobers-Grannum, Dr Karen Springer, Dr Elizabeth Ferdinand and Dr Joy St. John indicated that 155 confirmed cases of H1N1 were recorded from June to October that year. Barbados also recorded a higher rate of Severe Acute Respiratory Infections in 2009 as compared to the year prior.
In response to the pandemic, health officials, among other interventions, created a public awareness campaign aimed at improving handwashing across the island, particularly at schools and workplaces. Health and safety committees ramped up their efforts to ensure that colleagues were aware of the correct way to wash hands, often complete with useful, easy-to-follow signage.
Companies supported these efforts by installing mounted hand sanitizers at accessible points in their buildings.
However, in the absence of a major outbreak, all hands seem to be no longer on deck.
Unfortunately, at several establishments and businesses across the island, the mounted sanitizers are nothing more than a decoration. This is often exacerbated by the lack of free public restroom facilities across Barbados – an issue that seems to have lost political ground as of late.
We hope that our public health officials make good use of Global Handwashing Day, which will be celebrated on Tuesday, October 15th, to remind Barbadians of the imperative of having Clean Hands for All – this year’s theme – especially during these times. It should also be used as a time to highlight the importance of hand-washing for particular segments of our society, including childcare workers, health professionals and those without consistent access to clean water.