A new study proves that scant attention is paid to the simple act of washing hands. Here’s why it is more important than you think!
Washing your hands after a visit to the loo or before you eat is a no-brainer. But how thoroughly do you wash your hands? It’s a habit so passive, that you may be ignoring its importance or doing it wrong, without understanding the health risks your contaminated hands invite.
A new Michigan State University study on 3,749 Americans has found that only five per cent of people who used the restroom, washed their hands long enough to kill infection-causing germs. Moreover, 33 per cent didn’t use soap and 10 per cent didn’t wash their hands at all.
This may not surprise many of you, who are used to seeing people in your office loos darting out without bothering with the hand-wash.
According to the Public Health Association, only 53 per cent of the population in India wash hands with soap after defecation, 38 per cent wash hands with soap before eating and only 30 per cent wash hands with soap before preparing food. This could lead to a wide range of health problems.
Dr Anil Balani, consultant physician at Lilavati Hospital, Bandra, says, “Contaminated hands can set off feco-oral diseases like cholera and typhoid, especially during the rainy season when sanitation is poor and flies abound. Unclean hands also trigger diseases like gastroenteritis, worm infestations and jaundice. A simple habit of washing your hands with soap, inside out (see box) for 10 to 15 seconds will guard you against various viral and bacterial diseases.”
The benefits of hand-wash — its primary role in infection control was first pointed out in 1847 by a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmerweis — are well-recorded. According to data provided by UNICEF India, hand washing with soap, particularly after contact with excreta, can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by 30 per cent. Diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India. Infection-causing germs abound in the most innocuous of places: A kitchen rag, a tap, even mobile phones. A 2012 study by two London universities found that one in six mobile phones and 14 per cent of the currency handled had fecal bacteria on it. What shocked the researchers was the density of germs — 11 per cent hands carried as many germs as a toilet bowl. The danger with fecal bacteria is that it can survive on hands and other surfaces for hours, especially in warm and moist conditions.
Researchers say that our hands probably carry at least 3,000 different bacteria belonging to more than 100 species. Many are not pathogens. But the few rogue ones are enough to land you with a shivering, viral fever in the rains. Dr A K Gvalani, head of surgery at KEM Hospital, Parel, agrees. “Poor hand hygiene can cause skin infections as you are likely to touch other body parts. From giving you common cold to an eye sty, you would never know what damage unclean hands can cause to your health.”
Dr Gvalani also points out that unwashed hands are a significant factor behind the high incidence of hospital-acquired infections, as well. “It often causes wound infections in hospitals. Fortunately, in most established hospitals today, doctors liberally use hand sanitisers each time,” he says.
With bad hand hygiene identified as the biggest contributor to the almost two million hospitalacquired infections that kill one lakh people in the US every year, hospitals there are testing a new wristband monitor that reminds doctors to wash their hands when they enter a patient’s room. Not only does the IntelligentM bracelet give doctors and nurses a buzzing signal to wash hands, it also sets off further warnings if the cleansing isn’t up to the mark.
The ideal hand-wash
A good hand-wash should last at least 15 seconds. Start with wetting your hands, then use soap and work up a fine lather. First scrub palm to palm till the wrists, then the backs of hands, interlacing fingers, rubbing thumbs and finally cleanse it under running water. Don’t leave the sink without drying your hands on a towel or under a dryer, as germs thrive in moist environments.