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Fashion Police: Why Are You Wearing Rubber Boots In Liberia?

On the streets of Liberia, chlorinated water is available for hand washing.
John Moore
Getty Images
On the streets of Liberia, chlorinated water is available for hand washing.

Working in Ebola hotspots is old hat for NPR. We've had reporters and photographers at the epidemic since April. Our global health correspondent Jason Beaubien has been to West Africa three times during the crisis.

This week it's my turn.

When I left the U.S. last week, I brought a list of tips from veteran Ebola reporters for keeping myself safe. Many of them are proving to be quite useful:

Wash your hands every chance you get: This isn't difficult. Shops, bars, restaurants and businesses all have "Ebola" buckets sitting outside their doors. The buckets are filled with a mix of water and bleach and have a little spigot at the bottom . You wash going into the shop. Sometimes you wash going out.

It all adds up to about a dozen hand washings each day. The result is the cleanest hands I've ever had. Seriously, my nails are gleaming white, and my skin is starting to dry out. But my hands are Ebola-free.

Don't touch your face, especially not those eyes: Man, this one took me a while to get used to. But I think it's an important one. Ebola spreads through direct contact of your bodily fluids with an infected person's fluids — and there are a lot of fluids in your eyes.

I've done a good job of keeping my face "hands free" while walking around Monrovia or interviewing health workers. My colleagues Jon Hamilton and Rolando Arrieta even remind me.

But those eyes can itch! So when I get back to the hotel, I wash my hands and scratch as much as I want.

No shaking hands, no hugs: Monrovians have this down. Each time you meet someone new, they never put out their hand. If you go to pat a shoulder or accidentally brush up against someone, you'll hear a gentle warning: "No touching." Even kids reprimand you.

Keep the spit off the equipment: In radio reporting, we get pretty close to people. And we do a lot of talking. So this can involve another bodily fluid: saliva.

We haven't talked to or been near anyone who might have Ebola. But, out of an abundance of caution, we wipe down all our equipment (hands) after doing each interview with Clorox wipes. We also give our phones and computers a quick wipe.

Booting up: One safety tip, I'm having a hard time following: Wear big, brown rubber boots everywhere.

We even wore the eyesores to report at a church service. Rubber boots in church! I was embarrassed. Everyone else was dressed impeccably. Women were wearing bright yellow, red and blue dresses. And the men were in perfectly tailored suits.

The idea behind the boots is great. The rubber protects your feet from any bodily fluids on the ground.

Plus, they're easy to clean. Many shops and business have shoe-cleaning stations out front. And the bleach doesn't hurt the rubber.

But man, wearing these boots, pulled up knee high, makes me feel crazy while walking around Monrovia. Everyone else is wearing sandals, flip flops or fresh, white sneakers. They're have on little sundresses, colorful polo shirts and cute shorts. And I'm wearing long sleeves, long pants and ... giant, brown boots. People stare at my feet. Many just give me the strangest look.

Rightfully so. Monrovia is close to the equator. It's 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside with 100 percent humidity. My feet are sweating in these rubber boots. And my feet are getting more and more stinky by the minute. (Thank goodness for those Clorox wipes).

I understand wearing the boots at hospitals or places where there might be people with Ebola. But at the market or a government building? Nobody else seems to be worried about getting Ebola on their feet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.