Dr. Komba Songu-Mbriwa in a training session with hygienists from the Western Area of Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of WHO/S. Gborie.
In Ebola-affected countries, like Sierra Leone, the lack of running water can make hand hygiene a challenge. Hand hygiene is so important in public health that May 5 every year is marked as Hand Hygiene Day. Dr. Komba Songu-Mbriwa is a doctor on the frontlines of the Ebola fight in Sierra Leone who also knows the challenges of the disease firsthand. He is an Ebola survivor. But today, he says his most important role extends beyond Ebola as a protector of other health workers. His specialty: teaching his colleagues how to protect themselves and other patients from the spread of all infectious diseases when patients are being cared for in health facilities.
“Hands are the main way in which germs spread in healthcare settings,” says Songu-Mbriwa.
Not just in Sierra Leone but across the world, the simplest and most important action to block the spread of disease in health facilities is ensuring that health workers consistently clean their hands properly. It is so important in public health that 5 May every year is marked as Hand Hygiene Day.
“More and more of our health workers colleagues understand this,” says Songu-Mbriwa. “But beyond understanding, we must make it easy and accessible for them to clean their hands often. It’s one thing to repeat ‘Wash your hands’, but what if there is no running water?”
This is a real challenge in many countries. In Sierra Leone, WHO is working with healthcare administrators to encourage them to provide access to a safe, continuous water supply and to the necessary facilities to perform handwashing, and a readily accessible alcohol-based handrub at the point of patient care. This ambitious plan mirrors work that is already well under way in many parts of the world, including in some countries in Africa. It will involve World Health Organization (WHO) support to hospitals for making their own handrub, using a special low-cost WHO formula to overcome some of the current barriers.
To raise awareness of Hand Hygiene Day in Sierra Leone, many districts have planned activities to raise awareness of this life-saving action as part of a campaign that unites and motivates healthcare workers across the globe around improving hand hygiene. At Connaught Hospital in Freetown, the Minister of Health has agreed to mark the day by signing a pledge of commitment to safe health care in Sierra Leone and to the reduction of health care-associated infections.
This kind of commitment is vital. In fact, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation is moving fast in its commitment to establish solid foundations for improvement. The Ministry’s new national guidelines for hand hygiene in health care will be launched on 5 May and will serve as a guide for implementing best hand hygiene practices in all health care facilities across the country.
Songu-Mbriwa sees benefits of his work in both immediately and in the longer term. Creating a culture of infection prevention and hand hygiene among health workers in Sierra Leone is essential for stopping the Ebola outbreak. But, he adds, with the right skills consistently applied, his colleagues will be better placed to respond to future outbreaks.