Social distancing versus immunity building: Secrets to overcoming COVID-19

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By Ore Taiwo Makinde 

The tension on the faces of patients in the hospital waiting room was almost palpable just few days ago. Seated under the confines of a shelter outside were another host of patients who did not feel so well but were also concerned that a visit to the hospital might not go so well. The reason for this unsettledness is quite apparent. COVID-19 is in town! During the Ebola outbreak and scare in 2014, patients deserted public hospitals and defaulted from specialist appointments in order to stay safe.

In order to reduce the risk of cross-transmission of infection and in alignment with the constraining ban from the Lagos State Ministry of Health, hospital waiting rooms were decongested in order to maintain social distancing of at least 1.5 metres from one person to the other. No longer were shoulders rubbing nor spittle balls spewing from the mouths of folks with loud voices permitted.

To enter into any clinic, hands were sanitized and temperatures taken. Face masks were given out to cover the nose and mouths of anyone who coughed. The tips on hand hygiene and cough etiquette were reiterated every now and then. Long before the advent of COVID-19, I had long been a stickler for sneezing into the sleeve or elbow. It has always felt like common sense which is thankfully becoming common.

However this level of social distancing wasn’t quite enough or was it? Further engagement and discussion has led to the partial or total suspension of several public clinics. Only emergencies are being entertained. Citizens are being admonished to stay away from any possible source of the COVID-19 infection.

Notwithstanding, if anyone does come in contact with the virus, the ability of the human host to defend itself from the debilitating effects of the disease will depend on the host immunity. The human body has millions of soldiers that defend its immunity. They are fighter cells which are constantly at war and on the lookout for invasion from viruses, bacteria and foreign bodies.

Different cell-lines respond to diverse kinds of infection ranging from the malaria plasmodium to the lassa virus. Infections like the ebola virus and corona virus are so deadly that they can shut down these fighter cells such that the body loses its immunity.

However, these fighter cells must be trained and equipped to fight disease. The stronger the fighter cells (white blood cells) are to contend against killer illnesses, the more secure our health becomes. Most fatalities thus far are linked to underlying health problems many of which are lifestyle-related and largely preventable. These include chronic lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and some cancers.

The adoption of several important actions which confer the much needed immunity during this deadly season is equally as important as social or physical distancing. Some of these actions include:
1.    Hand hygiene: Washing hands before eating, after toilet use and after work or meetings where handshakes and money are frequently exchanged is an action that cannot be over-emphasized.
2.    Environmental sanitation: Clearing and appropriate disposal of trash and cleaning of city drainages which will drastically reduce the breeding sites of mosquitos, rats and other rodents. Even transporters need to abide by the rules and clean out their garages.
3.    Cough etiquette: Always sneeze or cough into your disposable tissue, handkerchief or sleeve to reduce rates of cross-infection. An average of 3,000 droplets are expelled in a single cough and as much as 40,000 in a sneeze.
4.    Immunisation: This protects against vaccine-preventable diseases such as yellow fever, polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis A & B.
5.    Adequate, good-quality sleep: A duration of 7-9 hours in adults will help to boost your immunity. Studies show that inadequate rest within 1-2 weeks of exposure to the common cold virus predisposes one to developing the infection compared to those who had adequate sleep.
6.    Strength & resilience training and other exercises: These are important actions for fitness of all body muscles including the heart muscle. Staying at home this season is certainly not the time to become a couch potato from constant  watching of home videos and games. Do daily work-outs to keep fit. Move every 20 minutes.
7.    Nutrition: A heart-healthy diet consisting of whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables and less of added sugars, soft drinks, alcohol and red meat is still the best option. The most important content of our diet now are vitamins particularly A, B, C and D along with other micronutrients like magnesium, potassium and calcium.
8.    Avoid smoking – both first and second hand smoking. The increased fatality rate from COVID-19 in some countries has been linked to this.
9.    Do not panic: It is very easy to become unsettled from the daily news tabloids about more infections and deaths from COVID-19. Refuse to give into the panic mode. Keep the faith and be optimistic. You will be less prone to mistakes, anxiety and mental distress.
10.    Avoid myths and old wives tales: Imagine a mother scared to her wits forcing her sons just returning to Nigeria to drink very hot water in order to kill the corona virus. This could scald the wall of their oesophagus leading to further complications. Stick to the clinically approved guidelines on prevention and treatment as advised by global health organisations. Don’t self-medicate.

In conclusion, promoting health habits is the way to go in keeping fit and healthy. After this global pandemic fizzles out, let us remain strong in the pursuit of healthy living and pray that no similar wave of disease ravages our land.

Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is Consultant Family Physician and certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician.

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