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Save Lives: Clean Your Hands

Image courtesy of Cory Couillard

Hundreds of millions of patients around the world die or are considerably affected by diseases such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, and other severe infections that occur during patient care in healthcare facilities. 

Experts agree that simple hand washing and cleanliness techniques can significantly lessen the global disease burden and promote good health.  Hand washing is a routine activity that every living individual needs to implement into his or her everyday lives – not just healthcare workers.

Embedding hand hygiene promotional activities as a national priority is the key according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Specific efforts have been made to support countries with large-scale activities to promote hand hygiene within healthcare and beyond.

The WHO has created a “SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands” campaign that is set for 5 May 2013.  This global movement is designed to improve hand hygiene education, awareness and to provide sustainable solutions to healthcare professionals that will help reduce the burden of hygiene-related patient disease. 

Registrations are particularly encouraged from countries with zero or low numbers of registrations.  The “SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands” campaign aims to be as inclusive of everyone as possible.

5 May 2013 falls on a Sunday, a rest day for most, but not for all. Activities have always been promoted as 'on or around 5 May' to ensure all health-care workers have the opportunity to take part in the hand hygiene awareness-raising activities.

The first global patient safety challenge

The WHO program “Clean Care is Safer Care” looks to ensure that infection control is acknowledged universally as an essential basis towards patient safety that supports the reduction of healthcare-associated infections and their potential life-threatening consequences.

“As of May 2012, over 15 000 health-care facilities have committed to improve hand hygiene. This represents approximately 10 million health-care workers, and more than 3.7 patient-beds, an unprecedented achievement” according to the WHO.

“Our efforts and those of health-care workers in these facilities must now be directed towards sustaining improvements and thereby reducing healthcare-associated infections and patient suffering”, says Professor Didier Pittet, Director, Infection Control Programme, University of Geneva Hospitals and Faculty of Medicine.

Healthcare starts with home care

A recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control demonstrated that hand washing could prevent disease transmission in the household setting as well. Previous studies mainly focused on the importance of hand washing and workers in the food and health industries.

Researchers tested toilet in homes where at least one person had been diagnosed with salmonella – a common cause of food poisoning.  They found that toilets could remain contaminated for up to three weeks after its confirmed presence. This indicates that the infection could be transmitted long-term without proper toilet cleaning and hand hygiene techniques.

A similar study demonstrated how a virus could be transmitted through touching a contaminated door handle and shaking hands with others.  Test results confirmed that the virus could be spread up to six additional people. 

The authors of the study commented that people should be aware of the surfaces that are touched by a large number of people such as faucets, toilet flush handles and doorknobs.  Society cannot avoid these items and demonstrates the importance of something that we can control—hand washing.

Other common forms of germ transmission include coughing and sneezing.  The direct spray into the air or into one’s hands can greatly facilitate the spread of bacteria and viruses alike.  Also be aware of other activities such as changing diapers, touching trashcans and any surface that may have come in contact with waste or food products.

Clean hands protect against infection

Clean your hands regularly.
Wash your hands with soap and water. Dry them thoroughly.
Use alcohol-based hand rub if you don’t have immediate access to soap and water.

How to wash your hands

Washing one’s hands thoroughly starts with warm or cold water and then applying soap. Antibacterial soap is not needed as any soap facilitates cleanliness. Create lather by rubbing one’s hands together and scrub the backs of the hands, wrists, between fingers and under/around every nail bed.

The most common hand-washing mistake is not washing one’s hands long enough.

Keep scrubbing all areas of the hands and wrists for a minimum of 40 to 60 seconds. Creating a routine is the most effective way of ensuring that all areas are properly cleaned.  A fun, known way of washing one’s hands effectively is thinking of a song while washing one’s hands. This will help improve the overall time of washing.

It is important to rinse off any additional soap and dry hands with a paper towel, a clean hand towel or dry hands with an air drier if available.  It is also recommended to turn off the faucet with the towel as that can prevent recontamination of one’s hands.

Alcohol wipes or hand sanitizers are very effective if soap and water are not readily available.  Hand sanitizers contain alcohol and will prevent one from needing a hand towel. Simply rubbing one’s hands together will dry them sufficiently. The downside is that they are expensive and the cost can limit widespread use. 

Children are at greatest risk

We all know that kids don't listen very well when you tell them to wash their hands before eating, after using the bathroom, or when they come inside from playing. Regardless, it's an important continual message that can reduce future minor and serious illnesses.

Hand washing is the best way to prevent germs from spreading to other children and eventually the whole family as well.  It is also the first line of defense against the spread of many other common illnesses such as the common cold and flu or even more serious illnesses such as meningitis, hepatitis A, and most types of infectious diarrhea.

Getting involved

Hand hygiene is just as important, if not more, for the general public compared to healthcare professionals.  The “SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands” WHO campaign is directed towards healthcare professionals but we must not forget that our daily personal choices will impact our health well before the need of one. 

Healthy habits are exactly that, habits.  Create a routine of washing one’s hands before, during and after activities that are known to infest them.  Minimize possible exposures and transmissions by understanding the most common culprits of the problem.

You can do your part by educating friends, family members and loved ones on how to reduce the risk of transmission. If you’re a healthcare professional, go to the following site if you’d like to participate in the 5 May 2013 event. 

The purpose of this article is to provide a healthcare professional adequate time to plan and implement the program and for improved public health.

Dr. Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

Facebook: Dr Cory Couillard
Twitter: DrCoryCouillard

Article featured in The Herald newspaper


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