Sharing underwear is a big no-no

29 March 2018
Author   Rinelda Mouton
The sale of used underwear such as panties has been identified as a sanitary concern as it can cause serious health infections.
Namibian dermatologist, Dr Natia Mukete-Nghalipoh, recently called on people to refrain from wearing second-hand or previously used undergarments.  According to Mukete-Nghalipoh, just washing intimate wear may not remove harmful bacteria which can cause a range of viral infections that can be passed between people.
People will not choose to wear another person’s old panties, but it is a fact that some people living in extreme poverty have no other choice.  Recycled clothes are all that they can afford and they struggle to afford that. 
Recently, I met with a mother who earns very little per month as a laundress. In good months, if she gets lucky and receives other laundry job offers, she can earn a bit more, but extra jobs are rare.
She has to care for her own two children, aged 10 and 13 and also for her sister’s 9-year-old.  With her small income she can’t even afford a steady roof over her head. She has set up a small shack on illegal land in the capital and each day she has to live with the fear of being evicted.  If kicked out from where she is currently residing, she says she has nowhere else to go.
In her situation, she feels that she has no other choice, but to buy old clothes, including used underwear. 
When I questioned her whether she knew about the health dangers of wearing second-hand undergarments, she said that she is aware, but has no other choice.  She said she currently owns only one pair of panties and must wash it every night before going to bed.  She said if she could afford to buy another pair of used undergarments, she certainly would.
On a health website, I learned that infections such as vaginal and skin candidiasis, scabies, ring worm, body lice, chicken pox, gonorrhoea, syphilis and hepatitis can result from wearing ‘used’ panties.
Sharing unsanitised towels and bed linen can also spread infections.  Germs on clothes and towels come from inside of us and can live for some time outside of our bodies, particularly in dark, warm, moist conditions. 
We all have bacteria on the surface of our skin, in all of our orifices and in our gut. Most are harmless, but some can cause infections of varying degrees, particularly in people with immunity issues, existing skin problems or wounds.
Washing clothes in hot water and disinfectant soap seriously reduces the risk of germs being transmitted, but for those who have no access to hot water and who have little money available for disinfectants or anti-bacterial soaps, what tools can they possibly have to win the battle against avoidable infections? 
Poverty and disease walk hand-in-hand.  Our recent Hepatitis E outbreak is proof of this if nothing else is.
I am writing this because I want to inform others about the dangers of using second-hand underwear.  I urge development partners, civil society, churches, private sector businesses and benevolent groups to work with local governments to start campaigns to provide new, sturdy clean underwear to needy women and young girls, free of charge. 
Just as our young girls with few resources struggle to have sanitary pads and organisations have sprung up to assist with this problem on a basic level, I hope to see groups and retail clothing businesses that can raise funds or support donations of free undergarments to the very poor, also take root.
My heart burns for a healthy Namibian nation. I don’t want anything worse to happen to the people of my country.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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