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 out more….
The connection between clean hands and reduced disease
Handwashing can be a matter of life and death. Ignaz Semmelweis, a
doctor working in
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 with animals.
If there is no soap and water, alcohol based rubs are as effective.
All together now: “Happy birthday to you….”