Over the years, Dar es Salaam, a cosmopolitan city has grown dramatically in terms of its demographic and urbanisation.
With this came the demand of public commutes leaning towards means of transport that is affordable and convenient. Motorbike taxis, popularly known as bodaboda here in Tanzania became one of the most used public transports by commuters wanting to manoeuvre through city’s road congestion.
Majority of the city dwellers opt to hire these commercial motorcyclists stationed in several parts of the town whenever they are in rush to attend office, business meetings or simply reach a place on time.
One among is the 40-year-old Pamela Konga, a resident of Magomeni, one of the suburbs in Dar es Salaam. She hires a bodaboda religiously every day from her place to Ubungo where she works.
But she has a concern that she tells Your Health. Despite wearing a helmet is a compulsion for the riders and pillion [the seat for passenger behind a motorcyclist] passengers, she prefers not to. “One day I hired a bodaboda and he asked me to wear a helmet, but when I grabbed it, it had a foul smell. Though I couldn’t take the stink, I had to wear it so as to avoid the attention from the traffic police,” she says.
What happens if we wear dirty helmets?
The Tanzanian revised Road Traffic Act 2002 has made it compulsory for both the motorcycle rider and passenger to wear a helmet for safety. This is because, the motorcycle helmets (MCHs) are capable of protecting motorcyclists from serious head/brain injuries in the event of a road traffic accident.
But this contradicts various health studies claiming that motorcycle helmets could constitute varied health problems or complications to the users following constant handling and use of helmets by different individuals.
Among others, it could create a prime breeding ground for many microorganisms such as bacteria and possible transmission of pathogenic microorganisms as well as communicable diseases among users.
Dr Andrew Foi, a skin specialist at Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH) admits that it is true that the use of contaminated helmets can lead to transmission of various bacterial, viral infections from one person to other helmet users.
He says, “The helmets need to be clean all the time in order to avoid the transmission to take place. The bacteria and virus (Herpes Simplex Virus) transmits from one person to another through direct contact with the microorganisms.”
He further comments that the health hazards that are associated with bacterial and viral infections could lead to serious complications including death.
“Despite helmet use is crucial for protecting motorcycle riders and pillion passengers from serious head/brain injuries in the event of a road traffic accident, the users must be very careful in order to avoid being at risk of developing the infections,” he cautions.
He also asserts that the helmets are being used by many people with different skin infections hence the infections can transfer from one person to another person easily.
Ms Konga has never experienced any bacterial infection associated with helmet use. She says, “I normally avoid wearing helmets, which are not clean and that is why I have never developed infections.”
Serious health implications
Microorganisms associated with commercial motorcycle helmets were investigated in the commercial city of Lagos, Nigeria in a study titled, “Microorganisms Associated With Commercial Motorcycle Helmets in Lagos Metropolis” published in the Journal of Microbiology, Biotechnology and Food Sciences.
The research was undertaken to determine the microorganisms associated with commercial motorcycle helmets and its public health significance.
A total of six hundred (300 hundred from each location) randomly collected motorcycle helmets from two locations: Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH) main gate and Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) main gate, were used in this study. Microbial samples were collected from the motorcycle helmets using three sterile swabs for examination.
Results showed that helmets could serve as vehicles for transmission of pathogens. This has a lot of health implications causing boils, abscesses, wound infections, toxic shock syndrome, Pneumonia and can lead to transmission of serious skin infections.
It is also known to trigger allergic response and has been implicated in the increased incidence of severe asthma and sinuses.
The study therefore recommended that Good hygiene practice (GHP) be adhered to during and after handing of motorcycle helmet, and as well, that regular cleaning of motor cycle helmets with sterilants be carried out in order to reduce the incidence of microbial transmission and its associated infection.
But not all motorcyclists adhere to good hygiene practise. One of the commercial motorcyclist stationed at Tabata admits to this. 25-year-old Boniface Samweli says that majority of the commercial motorcyclists don’t clean the helmets after they are used by the customers.
Adding that the commercial motorcyclists are always too busy on roads hence they don’t have enough time to sit down and do the needful.
“It is true, only a few motorcyclists clean the helmets, but majority don’t. Personally I keep my helmets clean all the time. This is why I manage to serve a good number of customers,” he says.
Advise for riders and passengers
Commenting further, Mr Samweli asserts that the helmets take too long to dry after being cleaned, this is why the motorcyclists don’t want to waste their time awaiting the helmets to dry.
“The customers prefer to use the helmets which are clean. Most of them reject to use the helmets which smell bad or dirty ones,” he adds.
Commenting further on the matter, Dr Foi calls on the commercial motorcyclists to clean the helmets at least two times per week using soap or other substances to kill the bacteria and virus found in the helmets.
“I also urge helmets users to use alternative methods to avoid direct contact when using the helmets. For instance, they can wrap their heads with a cloth material before putting on the helmets,” he says.
Dr Foi also asserts that there is a need to enhance public awareness campaigns by the government and health stakeholders in the country in a bid to educate the motorcyclists on importance of embracing cleanliness.
“Education is not enough. There is a need to educate the bodaboda riders and passengers. It is an obligation of the government and stakeholders as a whole to do so,” he says.
However, Dr Foi establishes that in Tanzania there are no local research works which have been conducted to determine the microorganisms associated with commercial motorcycle helmets and its public health significance.
“There is no documented research work, which have been done in the country yet. But I have attended several patients who were found to have bacterial and viral infections associated with helmet use,” he says.
He adds that there is a need to conduct such evidence based research work to address the health hazard associated with microorganisms.
Dr Amina Mgunya, the MNH Internal Infection Physician, warns that motorbike riders and passengers are also at high risk of developing other health hazards associated with motorbike riding.
“We have been witnessing people coming to the hospital with back pain seeking for treatment. In early days, we used to see it in elderly,” she says. She asserts that the condition is attributed to poor road infrastructure.
“It is because of the vibrations experienced by the motorbike users that lead to spine disorder and sometimes can lead to dislocation,” she says.
Commenting further on the health risks, Dr Mgunya reveals that motorbike riders are also at high risk of developing erectile dysfunction (ED) mainly among men. “ED is also reported to be another health hazard associated with motorbike riding. It is attributed mainly by nerve damage caused by vibrations,” Dr Mgunya confirms.