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By Francis P. Koster Ed. D.

Do you know why "important people" are called "bigwigs"?   You hear it often - like when your brother-in-law said "So I sat at the head table with all the bigwigs" when he was bragging about his recent success.

This subject actually links to the Ebola epidemic .

Start back in 400 B.C. in Egypt, and scroll forward until the 1800's in Europe, and you will find records of important people wearing wigs. One of the several reasons they wore wigs was because they shaved their heads to avoid infestations of lice and other vermin which carried disease like typhus.[1], [2] [3]

Razor blades were primitive, straight, dangerous, expensive, and used on you by someone you hired, because you could not shave your own head. Those who could afford regular head shaving were clearly rich.

When they covered their naked head with wigs, the richer and important got bigger wigs than the less rich. So "big wigs" became a term used to refer to the rich and powerful, actually created by their attempt to evade communicable diseases.

Everyone recognizes the notion of a "teachable moment", when the student is actually eager to learn. They are usually, driven by excitement, visions of opportunity, or fear. Our society is now in a teachable moment about communicable diseases.

Parents everywhere are watching nervously the news that 3 out of 4 people who get infected with Ebola die, and thousands of new victims being diagnosed weekly in Africa.[4] New cases in showing up in Texas, Germany, Canada and elsewhere. It is frightening.

It is creating a "teachable moment" - for both parents and their kids. We need to take advantage of it.

What strategy is proving to be most successful in protecting those who have come close to infected Ebola victims? Washing hands[5].

You read it right - persons around potentially infected people can protect themselves and their family by a number of means, but first among them is hand washing. This does not just apply to Ebola. Eighty percent of all diseases are transmittable through touch[6].

And yet a lot of fibs are told about hand washing.   For example, in one large study, 95% of those monitored said they washed their hands for 20 seconds after using the toilet. Observers of those same people reported that 1 in 3 did not![7] Worse, those who did cheated on the time , and washed for less than half the recommended 20 seconds - so the end result of infection reduction was not as good as it could have been. And in many cases no soap was used, reducing impact even further[8].

Many basic hygiene issues are taught to us as children, by adults who teach little tricks to support our learning. One of the best ones I heard of was the "say the alphabet trick", where little ones are told to recite the alphabet starting when they have soap on their hands - turns out it takes right around 20 seconds, and they can begin to dry when they hit "z".  For more advanced students who want to better yourself and your community twice in the same time, you can recite the ten commandments once, or the Pledge of Allegiance twice.

The point is that we can make our world, and our families better equipped to deal with spreading illness by reminding them of a few simple rules of cleanliness.   if we do this, we will be lowering their anxiety, and reduce their sense of powerlessness.

So all you Big Wigs out there (that is, after all, how your kids see you), it is time to become role models.   Make hand washing a topic of conversation, both around the table, and in other logical locations. Demonstrate how you say the ABC's, or recite other important statements.

We can build a stronger and better society by imitating many little local locally successful actions, all of which can add up to a better world. This can run all the way from teaching hand washing to little ones to major items like stopping pollution and its' resultant disease. It just takes local leadership.

Please step up.  

 [1] http://www.mkheritage.co.uk/nphs/docs/wills/wigs.html

[2] http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/11869/ngv_kids_trail_wiggedout.pdf

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/body/disease.html

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/14/who-ebola-cases_n_5982078.html

[5] http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ebola-virus/basics/prevention/con-20031241

[6] http://www.sundaypost.com/that-s-life/your-health/one-in-four-don-t-wash-hands-1.629284

[7] http://www.henryschein.com/us-en/images/Medical/HandHygiene-FunFacts.pdf

[8] Thomas D. Berry, Daniel R. Mitteer, and Angela K. Fournier (2014). Examining Hand-Washing Rates and Durations in Public Restrooms: A Study of Gender Differences Via Personal, Environmental, and Behavioral Determinants.

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