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Dr Charlie Easmon MBBS MRCP MSc Public Health DTM&H DOccMed is medical director of Your Excellent Heath Service and is a specialist in public health.

COVID-19 has killed more than half a million people in the world and has infected more than 10 million world-wide. The virus spread from Wuhan, China in December 2019 and within months was in every country in the world at an alarming speed. 

Germaphobes leading the way in pandemic health and safety

Though most countries were slow to acknowledge the true devastation the virus would wreak, most nations now accept more could have been done, sooner. Today, social distancing, the wearing of masks and the obligatory hand sanitisers are part of the ‘new normal’ but it took time for many people to get used to. One group of people were ahead of the curve – these early adopters were people who have obsessive compulsive disorders who have a germ-phobia.  A phobia is an irrational fear but during a pandemic, a fear of germs magically becomes ‘rational’ and also sensible, desirable and a public duty.

Obsessive-compulsive personality traits have been estimated as 1-2 percent of the general population and the percentage of people with germ-phobia is unknown.  

Prior to the pandemic many started to think we were living with too much of a concern for hygiene. One theory suggested that our ‘overly-clean’ world was leading to more allergies because of a lack of exposure of our immune system to infections.  For example, many parents scoff at the fastidious child who will not eat  a piece of toast dropped to the floor citing the completely unscientific ’5-10 second rule’. 

Famous Germophobes include President Donald Trump, Howard Hughes, the American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director and, of course, the supermodel Naomi Campbell. 

Trump, despite not wearing a mask during a pandemic, thinks shaking hands is almost a ‘barbaric’ custom and acknowledges that ‘I’m also very much of a germophobe by the way. Believe me.’ and some of his views are neatly summarised in this link:

Howard Hughes suffered brain damage after his plane crash and this may have influenced the extremes of obsession and compulsion that oddly led to him saving and labelling his own urine and lying naked in darkened hotel bedrooms that he felt were ‘germ-free’ zones. 

Naomi Campbell pre-pandemic was trolled when a video went viral of her putting on her gloves and using Dettol wipes to clean everything she touched in her airplane and always wears a mask.

 But who’s laughing now?

The supermodel had a point and seemed to understand this superbug. Aircrafts tend to accumulate dirt. Rapid turnover in flights often means the poorest paid are asked to do a quick clean up job. The biggest problem area is the seating which is full of pockets and materials that can easily accumulate dirt or detritus. 

Cruise Line studies have now shown us it can live on surfaces for up to 17 days. Flight attendant Jamila Hardwick warns us of other hygiene risks on airplanes and backs Naomi’s advice to clean with wet wipes. 

Today we all are conscious of germs and aircraft cleanliness is top of mind. Now not only supermodels want to fight superbugs. We all do. 

Maybe, in hindsight, we shouldn’t have rushed to ridicule the supermodel after all. 

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