A pat on someone’s back, a pinch on a child’s cheek, a high five with a friend, feeling someone’s forehead for a fever, sharing a handshake as a form of greeting, we use our hands for so much. Our hands are at times our first tactile contact with the world.
Chefs use their hands to prepare mouth-watering food. Medics use their hands to aid diagnosis. While our hands are so important in our lives and in some professions, they certainly offer a heaven for millions of unseen microbes which may cause several infectious diseases. Thus emerges the need for handwashing.
Handwashing involves the use of soap and water with five simple steps, wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry. Critical times when hands should be washed are before, during, and after preparing food, before eating food, before and after caring for someone who is sick, before and after treating a cut or wound, after using the toilet, after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet, after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste, after handling pet food or pet treats and after touching garbage . Handwashing allows dirt and germs to wash away leaving your hands clean and free of germs. It is a simple act with far fetching results. It is precisely this reason it is considered the “do-it-yourself” vaccine .
Health facilities spend hefty amounts on hand hygiene. Walk into any hospital these days. It is an array of white walls, curtains, accordion separators, large dumpsters with disposable scrubs thrown into them, wash basins and dispensers for hand sanitizers installed around every nook and corner. It gives the air of a germ-free environment. An environment where not only any contagion seen with the naked eye may be spotted immediately and disposed of but microbes that cannot be appreciated with our eyes can be wiped away.
If one steps into the Obstetrics department in Szent Rokus Korhaz Hospital in Budapest Hungary, one would probably witness handrub being pumped into palms and rubbed feverishly to wipe away any germs that have landed on their hands. Ironically, outside the hospital stands a statue of Ignaz Semmelweis. A statue of a new mother with a baby in her lap sits at his feet looking up at him almost in gratitude, for she has not suffered death from puerperal fever because of him.
Semmelweis might possibly be the only one in history who fought a gruelling battle in favour of handwashing but died of sepsis ostracized by his colleagues. Little did he know that over the century following his time, the world would discover a myriad of diseases that could be averted with something as inexpensive as handwashing.
Diarrheal diseases, respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, surgical site infections, are some of the consequences of lack of hand hygiene. Diarrhea is a major affliction in low and lower middle income countries. It is one of the biggest killers of children under 5 years of age in these countries as well . Handwashing is, therefore, the top child survival interventions and can reduce child mortality by 50% . It is a key area in WASH programmes (WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene) falling specifically under Hygiene.
Over the years, handwashing has been recognized as a pillar of health. In 2008, the first Global Handwashing Day was celebrated around the world . Since then 15th October is the day when millions of people wash their hands together to remind themselves and each other that our clean hands help us to have a future. The link between hand hygiene and life is highlighted in this year’s Global Handwashing Day theme, “Our hands, our future”. Clean hands allow us to stay healthy giving us more chances to progress in life and enjoy the possibility of a bright future.
Handwashing is certainly the answer to averting many infectious diseases but is it that simple? Is the acquisition of water not in question in many of the frequently drought-hit areas in the world. The need is to not only improve current practice, maintain those improvements but also foresee possible crisis that affects hand hygiene practices.
Sarah Khalid Khan is a medical doctor from Pakistan and a news writer at GHNGN. Her interest is in global health, writing articles on health issues that merit global concern.
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