CHENNAI: It’s something that parents have been drilling into our heads since we were kids — wash your hands! Now, science has proved that the 30 seconds you spend at the washbasin will prevent dangerous infections by more than half.
A study published in the Lancet, a British medical journal, shows that children younger than 5 years that received plain soap and also knew about the benefits of handwashing had 50% lower incidence of pneumonia. It also noted that in households, which used plain soap, children below 15 years had a 53% lower incidence of diarrhoea and a 34% lower incidence of skin infections.
Another important finding was that the incidence of disease did not differ much between households given plain soap and antibacterial soap.
Believe it or not, your hands have more harmful bacteria than any other average surface on the body, and hands continue to be the main way bacterial infections spread. What the study found is that we don’t need any specialised anti-bacterial soap — we just need to have the habit of washing hands with any soap at regular intervals. This prevents the two clinical conditions that cause the largest number of childhood deaths globally — namely, diarrhoea and acute lower respiratory infections.
“The handwashing habit in community and healthcare professionals is very important. Most infections like swine flu, typhoid, common cold and others spread through hands,” explains Dr K Kolandaswamy, director of Public Health.
For instance, he points out, washing hands with soap after passing stool is a must. “If a person has typoid and he does not wash with soap, there is a risk that any surface he touches will spread the bacteria,” he adds. When swine flu hit the State earlier, soap was the simple solution that the health department promoted to fight against the disease.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) started a campaign ‘Save Lives: Clean Your Hands’ in 2009, asking all healthcare facilities to register for self-assessment of hand hygiene under a self-assessment framework.
But when did the practice of washing hands come into existence? Story has it that Sir Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and a pioneer of antiseptic surgery, promoted the idea of sterile portable basins while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
The surgeon first introduced carbolic acid (phenol) to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds, which led to a reduction in post-operative infections and made surgery safer for patients.
“There is a multi-drug resistant bacteria that spread from hospitals; there are certain bacteria in the blood fluids that will not die even in antiseptic solutions. But washing with plain soap and water will work like magic. About 80% of infections can be prevented by this simple procedure,” says Dr Padma Srikanth, professor of microbiology, Sri Ramachandra University.
■ Wet hands
■ Apply enough soap to cover entire hand
■ Rub palms together
■ Rub right palm over back of left palm and vice versa
■ Rub between fingers and back of fingers
■ Wrap right palm around left thumb and rotate and vice versa
■ Use rotational movement on palms
■ Rinse hands, dry, use towel to turn off tap