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This section provides key facts about personal hygiene and Indigenous environmental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander environmental health practitioners. Information is provided on the health effects of poor hygiene and the role of the environmental health worker in helping Indigenous communities practice good hygiene. At the end of this summary you will find information for specific resources that may relate to your area of interest or expertise. For environmental health workers it is important to understand why people have poor hygiene before the problems can be dealt with. The role of the environmental health worker is to promote good hygiene; they may often work on their own or with other health workers to achieve this goal.
Why is good hygiene important?
Good hygiene stops the spread of germs and parasites. Germs are very small microorganisms which cannot be seen with the naked eye, this means you need to use some form of magnification to see them. There are two main types of germs; viruses and bacteria, and when they enter the human body they can sometimes cause diseases and make people sick. Parasites are animals or plants which must live on or in another plant or animal to survive. Examples of germs and parasites which can cause health problems include:
- Salmonella (food poisoning)
- Shigelia (dysentery)
- Neisseria (gonorrhoea)
- Chlamydia (trachoma or sore eyes)
- Tetanus (lockjaw)
- Head lice
- Hookworm, ringworm and threadworm
- Hepatitis (liver disease), gastroenteritis (diarrhoea and vomiting) and meningitis (brain disease) can all be caused by germs.
Diseases enter a person's body by:
- mouth (drinking or eating contaminated water or food)
- broken skin
- genitals (sex organs)
Some diseases can be treated by medicines at home; however others may require hospital treatment.
How are germs and parasites spread?
Many of the diseases above occur because of poor environmental health standards which make it easier for germs to enter a person's body. Germs can be spread by:
- not washing ones hands regularly, mainly after going to the toilet. When hands are put on the face, in the mouth or on another person any germs present will spread
- droplets in the air containing germs can spread when a person coughs or sneezes on others
- sharing clothes and towels can spread skin or eyes diseases
- insects can spread diseases like Australian encephalitis by mosquitoes
- insects (flies and cockroaches) and rodents (rats and mice) spread germs to food when they walk over the food.
How do Indigenous communities stop the spread of germs and parasites?
By keeping the environment clean it is harder for germs and parasites to live and breed. There are many ways to stop the spread of germs and parasites, examples include:
- washing hands after going to the toilet or touching animals
- washing hands before preparing or eating food
- keeping the house clean especially the kitchen, toilet and bathroom
- keeping dogs clean and washed and not letting them onto beds or even better still not into the house
- making sure all cooked and uncooked food is stored correctly
- not going to the toilet near waterways or puddles as water can help spread germs and parasites
- do not let children play in areas where animal faeces are present
- do not let children play near taps or puddles where insects may be breeding
- keep yards clean, this stops people getting cuts and scratches from broken glass or rusty cans, as broken skin is one way germs and parasites can enter the body
- wash clothes and linen often
- keep drains and sewage lines maintained
Environmental health workers, as part of their role, need to find ways to get the information on personal hygiene to the communities. This may take time depending on how open people are to changing lifelong habits. The programs and projects and resource and equipment sections of this topic will provide environmental health workers with information to help them in this role.
Government of WA Department of Health (1997) Aboriginal Environmental Health Workers Manual 1997. Retrieved [Access 1997] from http://www.public.health.wa.gov.au/cproot/1458/2/EHW_Manual_1997.pdf
Queensland Health (2008) Hygiene, Queensland. Retrieved 2009 from http://www.health.qld.gov.au/ehworm/hygiene/default.asp