During an emergency situation a few very simple precautions may keep you and your family healthy. This is critically important. Remaining in good health will not only help you cope, it is essential for peak performance during high-stress or dangerous situations. It’s a simple truth that healthy people can respond more effectively to a disaster situation. Moreover, when health risks are greater and medical care more difficult to obtain, hygiene and sanitation mistakes can produce disastrous consequences.
Personal Hygiene. Personal hygiene and cleanliness is a serious challenge during many disaster situations. Unless you have adequate clean water, hand washing and bathing and other activities of hygiene may be difficult or impossible. Unfortunately, dirty bodies are breeding grounds for microbes. As a result, emergency situations where there are limited bathing opportunities can be expected to bring additional health challenges.
Even small cuts, blisters, thorns, insect stings and minor burns can become infected and lead to serious complications, additionally so if they are not cleansed and treated quickly. Be aware of even minor injuries. Anytime the skin is penetrated, take steps to clean and protect the skin in that area.
Hand Sanitization. Numerous medical studies have proven that the most effective way to prevent the spread of contagious diseases is very simple—wash your hands. Avoid touching your mouth and rubbing your eyes with your hands. Scrub your hands for at least 30-seconds (sing the “Happy birthday” song twice) with antibacterial soap and hot potable water after every trip to the latrine, after contact with someone who is ill, before food preparation, before touching clean cooking utensils and water purification equipment, and of course, before eating. This is vitally important.
If you can’t scrub with soap and hot water, at least cleanse your hands with a hand sanitizer or wipes. Since pure water may be in short supply and reserved for drinking, stockpile a quantity of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. For your GO-Bag, include a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Dental and Oral Health. Oral hygiene remains important, even in a disaster situation. If regular tooth brushing and flossing is not possible, and a toothpick and mouthwash aren’t available, after eating use a clean handkerchief to rub your teeth and tongue.
Now, in advance of a disaster, keep up to date with your 6-month dental checkups and teeth cleaning. If your dentist finds a problem such as a cavity, cracked tooth or a loose filling, get it fixed right away. Problems which are simple to fix today might become debilitating in the future. If a problem develops during an emergency situation it will diminish your ability to cope with the problems you need to face.
Keep a dental-emergency kit in your GO-Bag, and a more complete kit with your other emergency supplies. You can build your own kit with the help of your dentist. Or, at the very least, purchase an inexpensive basic kit such as the one produced by Adventure Medical Kits.
Sneezing and Cough Hygiene. Many communicable diseases are transmitted by airborne (aerosolized) pathogens. A simple way to prevent the spread of these diseases is to insist that everyone always cover their mouth and nose any time they sneeze or cough. Turn your head and cough or sneeze into your shoulder, rather than covering your mouth with your hand.
Those who have a contagious illness, like the flu, must wear a mask. Their caregivers must also wear a mask, as well as eye protection (wrap around inexpensive plastic safety glasses are effective). Caregivers must always sanitize their hands after contact with the patient, as well as bedding and other items that their patients have touched.
Medical masks are best, but inexpensive masks like those available from hardware stores, can be very effective.
Family and Community Health: Safe disposal of human waste is one of the top needs during any disaster situation. Moreover, after some disasters, a previously safe water supply may have become compromised. Don’t assume tap water is safe to drink.
Toilet: If plumbing doesn’t work, create a latrine outdoors. Fecal material should be buried, ideally after sprinkling a spade-full of lime over the excrement. The deeper the hole the better, as the same hole can be used repeatedly. Remove a toilet seat from the house and use it to build a makeshift seat over the hole. Dig the hole at least 100-feet away from creeks, rivers, lakes, water-well heads and food-growing gardens. (Do not use human excrement as fertilizer for growing food as it can contain harmful pathogens that can be transferred to growing food.) Locate your makeshift latrine in a place which affords privacy, and where prevailing winds will not send odors into living space. Covering it with a canvas tarp or old sheet can diminish the inevitable annoyance of flies and other flying insects. If toilet paper is unavailable, use paper napkins, book pages, and other sources of non-glossy paper. (Newspapers are less than ideal as the ink is often water-soluble and can become messy.) Pioneers used fresh grass and tree bark.
Sanitization of Counters, Toilet Fixtures, Furniture, Toys. A 10% solution of plain (no additives like scents) household bleach (Chlorox) is an excellent disinfectant for bathroom surfaces, kitchen counters where food is prepared, children’s toys (as possible), as well as objects in the “sick room” where a patient is recuperating.
* This solution is not recommended for disinfecting skin or open wounds.
Quarantine and Isolation. Even if no one in your group is currently ill, make plans for a place where you can effectively quarantine individuals who become ill. In the no-so-distant past, epidemics of influenza (“flu”) killed many people—especially children, the elderly and the infirm.
These higher-risk groups will generally be more susceptible to secondary serious complications. This is because their immune systems are not as effective as that of healthy, young adults.
If an outbreak of a contagious disease occurs in your group, the individual and their immediate caregivers must be immediately isolated from the group. In advance, consider now how you will accomplish this task. To reduce resistance, make sure that each member of your group understands this policy prior to the need for implementation.
If multiple individuals are sick, if possible, isolate them in separate rooms. If this isn’t possible and you have to place two or more individuals in a single room, erect a barrier between their beds (folding screen, hang a tarp or blanket, etc.). This will help prevent the patients from passing infectious agents back and forth when they sneeze or cough.
During pandemics, such as the “Spanish flu” outbreak in the early 1900’s, patient beds were organized so that the position of each patient’s cot was alternated; the head of each patient was at the feet of the patients on either side of him/her. This helped as a coughing patient projected their infected aerosol toward the adjacent patient’s feet rather than their eyes, nose or mouth.