The handshake has been around since the 2nd Century BC. But what does a handshake mean? In the olden days, the ancient feudal soldiers (often referred to as knights) would show and grip each other’s hands to show that they were not concealing any weapons and meant no harm to each other. Today, handshaking is perhaps one of the most popular ways of greeting another person or for congratulating or closing a deal.
As widely accepted as it is, there are cultural differences and barriers in shaking hands. In some religions, women are not supposed to shake hands with men. Among the Yoruba it was considered rude for a much younger person to stretch out his hand first to an older person. The older person often responded by knocking off the outstretched hand and demanding that the youngster should prostrate before him as a mark of respect. However the Igbo are more liberal and it wouldn’t matter who puts out his hand first.
Handshakes are not without danger to health in general and to eye health in particular. The swine flu virus can remain alive on inert objects or surfaces for two to eight hours. Flu and cold germs typically spread from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Hence if you touch any material contaminated with germs and then touch your eye, nose or mouth, you may become infected. Similarly, Neisseria gonorrhoea, the bacteria causing the dreaded gonorrhoea, lives for a short while outside the body and touching your eyes with discharge from an infected patient can cause an infection. Trachoma until recently was one of the leading causes of blindness and the organism, Chlamydia can be transmitted from hand to eyes. From these perspectives handshakes are said to be more dangerous than kissing!
During the last epidemic of Apollo, I was alarmed, watching from the distance, a man with bilateral conjunctivitis wiping his face with his hands and soon after engaged in handshake with an unsuspecting friend. I wasn’t therefore surprised, two days later when the friend turned up in the eye clinic with the same ailment. “Doctor I caught the bug from looking at my friend who had the infection,” he had said. “You’re correct about the source and diagnosis, but not about the method of transmission. You got it from handshake,” I said trying to educate him. Considering that I have been practising as an ophthalmologist for a very long while and seen over a thousand cases of acute conjunctivitis, if your theory of transmission of the infection is true, I would have had the infection several hundred times over,” I added. Now he was convinced.
Some days later the man who gave him the infection through handshake called at the eye clinic. His face was massively swollen; there was a copious purulent discharge from both eyes. Needless to say, he already had severe complications because of delay and inappropriate treatment and inevitably was on his way to blindness.
Now I believe I can read your mind and hear you ask, “Doctor, would you advise me not to shake hands again?” No! I would never encourage you to be anti-social! Don’t behave like my friend who constantly kept his hands in his pocket lest he be tempted to shake hands! Because of this attitude Joe is described as one of the most arrogant persons around. You can greatly reduce the risk of getting conjunctivitis or of passing it on to someone else by following some simple instructions – all summed up in the Yoruba adage – “Imototo bori arun mole bi oye ti nbori oru.” This means good hygiene is the remedy for good health. If you have infectious (viral or bacterial) conjunctivitis, you can help limit its spread to other people by following these steps washing your hands often with soap and water. If water is not available, you may use alcohol-based hand sanitizers which are freely available in the supermarkets. Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes and use disposable tissue paper to wipe your face instead of handkerchief and throw it away; wash your hands after using the toilet. Do not use the same eye drop bottle for infected and non-infected eyes – even for the same person. Avoid sharing pillowcases, towels and blankets and do not share eye make-ups face make-up, make-up brushes or eye glasses. Wash pillow cases, bed sheets and towels in hot water and detergent. Do not share items of the above mentioned items used by an infected person. Remember clean hands save not only sight but lives.
This article, which was first published in the Nigerian Tribune in 2012, repeated in April 2014 is updated and republished here in the light of the current coronavirus pandemic.