Handwashing. So simple, so easy, and so effective at
preventing the spread of diseases. Use soap and water, rub all surfaces of the
hand while singing Happy Birthday twice! The result? Up to 50% reduced
diarrhoea and respiratory infections. Handwashing is the most cost effective
health activity there is, says the World Health Organization. Read on to find
The connection between clean hands and reduced disease
Handwashing can be a matter of life and death. Ignaz Semmelweis, a
doctor working in Vienna first made the connection between clean hands and reduced disease in the mid
1800s. He noticed a difference in death rates on wards in a maternity hospital.
Those wards where doctors attended patients had a much higher mortality rate
than wards where only midwives attended patients. He eventually discovered that
the deaths on the first ward decreased if the doctors washed their hands before
arriving on the maternity ward. The doctors had been in the habit of attending
live patients straight after doing autopsies on dead ones. Unfortunately for
the women of Vienna and the rest of the world it was some decades before anyone influential agreed
with him that hand washing could prevent disease.
More recent studies show handwashing can reduce infectious
diseases such as diarrhoea (for example see Handwashing
and diarrhoea in the community) and respiratory diseases (see Handwashing and
respiratory illness) – up to 50% in some situations. Since about 3.5
million children worldwide die before they are five from these two illnesses,
handwashing does save lives.
Are we washing our hands enough?
Despite evidence that handwashing prevents illnesses, people
are notoriously bad at remembering. A study (Dirty
hands: bacteria of faecal origin on commuters' hands.) last year
showed that nearly one third of UK adults surveyed had fecal bacteria on their hands- a sure indicator of a lack
of washing. Around
the world the number of people who wash their hands varied from zero to 34% (according
to the Global Handwashing day website).
The health care profession is not so great a remembering to
wash hands either if the number of papers on Global
Health Database on hand hygiene campaigns in hospitals in anything to go by.
Handwashing is also important for those working in the food industry – many
foodborne disease outbreaks can be traced to poor handwashing.
So how should it be done?
Effective hand washing means using soap or detergent and
water. Water alone does not remove fats and oils which can harbour bacteria. Rub
all surfaces of the hand for 20 seconds. WHO recommends singing the song ‘Happy Birthday’
twice as a timing device. You don’t have to do that out loud however if you don't want to! This film
on how to do it helps shows how to get to all parts of the hand
Hands should be washed after visiting the bathroom, before
eating or preparing food or feeding children, after handling rubbish such as
nappies (diapers), after cleaning up wastes, after sneezing and after contact
If there is no soap and water, alcohol based rubs are as effective.
All together now: “Happy birthday to you….”