Wash Those Hands, With Soap

The most effective health practices are sometimes the most simple. Even in an age of technological advances, simple practices like washing yours hands are still the most effective way to prevent the spread of disease. It’s about going back to basics.

In a fascinating book called “Better,” Dr. Atul Gawande discusses how something as fundamental as washing your hands properly and often can stop the spread of infectious agents — even that of the most lethal, disease-resistant bacterium like Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).

What is really amazing is that some doctors and nurses do not comply with specific hand washing procedures because of time constraints, inconvenience or the self-defeating acceptance that infections will occur. At my internship I recently observed a patient who contracted MRSA in the hospital; the infection complicated and prolonged his stay. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 22 patients will acquire an infection while hospitalized, which amounts to over 1.7 million cases a year. Of those, 99,000 will die from the infection. These hospital infections, are completely preventable, as long as hospital personnel and visitors wash their hands properly and frequently.

Even outside hospitals, simple practices make a difference. With flu season approaching and the H1N1 virus spreading, the hand washing can reduce the chance of spreading and contracting the disease. The CDC and many health professionals recommend a number of strategies to minimize the spread of disease. Avoid touching your face. Wash hands frequently. Sneeze or cough into your elbow. A study completed in September at the University of California, Berkeley observed the habits of 10 students as they used campus computers. Over the course of a three hours, the students touched their lips, eyes and noses 47 times, at least once every four minutes. Dr. Nicas, an environmental health science professor at Berkeley, asserts that over one-third of the risk of getting the flu results from touching the face, nose and mouth. Consequently, by washing your hands and minimizing touching the face when using equipment such as computers or grocery carts, people can reduce the likelihood of catching or spreading the flu.

Lastly, think of the last time you used your credit or debit card and had to sign your name to complete the purchase. Now think of the pen you used to sign your name; was it a public pen or did you use your own? Hundreds of people use the same pens every day after sneezing into their hands or handling infected objects, creating a teeming environment of bacteria of all sorts. With the threat of H1N1 and seasonal influenza spreading, small changes in habit will help ensure you do not get sick and at the same time will also slow the spread of disease.

Most of us know that something as simple as washing your hands is extremely important for stopping the spread of disease. So why don’t people comply? Often the culprit is time and convenience. In “Better,” Gawande explains that in some hospitals few health professionals were observed following the strict and time-consuming recommended hand washing technique protocols. Studies calculated that if they did, doctors and nurses would be spending roughly one-third of their time washing their hands during their work-day.

In addition, it is more convenient to use the store’s pen instead of digging around in your pockets or purse trying to find one while 10 people are behind you waiting impatiently. It is simply easier not to comply. But easier is not necessarily healthier.

Small changes in habits have large impacts. Washing your hands, using your own pens in public and avoiding touching your face, even though elementary steps, are key to preventing the contraction and spread of disease.

Chelsea Semrau is a fourth-year public health policy major. She can be reached at csemrau@uci.edu.