Covid-19: Are we being too clean for our own good?

Friday June 05 2020

Grace Adhiambo, a community health worker, teaches children how to wash their hands at Shining Hope for Communities hand-washing centre in Kibera in April 2020. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The measures recommended to contain the spread of Covid-19, such as frequently washing and  sanitising hands, disinfecting  houses, counter tops, office desks and tabletops, coupled with stay-at-home orders, could reduce our immunity, experts have warned.

While staying at home is not expected to directly affect the immune system, factors such as stress, depression or bad health habits can.

Immunologist Geoffrey Kulabusia acknowledges that certain diseases, such as gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, can be spread by contaminated hands and, therefore, proper handwashing can help prevent the spread of the germs (like bacteria and viruses) that cause these diseases.

However, he notes that the Covid-19 interventions could have a negative effect on people with underlying conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

“When a person is reconditioned to an environment they are not used to, the body immediately reacts by producing stress hormones within the first six hours. Production of this hormone increases, depending on the person’s condition,” he says.

To contain Covid-19, the World Health Organization recommended that people should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or sanitise them. But physicians and immunologists are reconsidering the “antiseptic” or “at times hysterical ways” in which people interact with the environment, although this interaction might help prevent some allergic diseases.


The recommendation is informed by the fact that it is not yet clear how long the virus can remain or live on the skin.

Although he supports frequent hand-washing, Dr Kulabusia points out that many of the sanitisers and soaps being used are harsh to the skin, making it more prone to infections.

Naturally, the skin produces protective micro-organisms that help build its defence  against infections. However, with repeated hand-washing, Dr Kulabusia notes, these micro-organisms are eroded, making the skin vulnerable to infections, making the exercise counterproductive.

Meanwhile, Dr Lukoye Atwoli, associate professor of psychiatry at the Moi University School of Medicine, expects no notable change: “I would say that sanitising and staying at home  will not have any negative consequences on immunity. As long as people are eating well, exercising, sleeping well, there may even be positive effects on enhanced sanitation. The risk of other infectious diseases will probably reduce due to these sanitation measures,” he says.