/ 15 October 2010

Your health is in your hands

Hand washing. It seems so innocuous. After you use the toilet, before you eat. We all learnt to do it as little children, right?

Wrong. The shocking truth is that as many as 60% of South Africans don’t wash their hands properly after using the toilet. And where do those hands go afterwards? On to door handles, banisters, keyboards and into communal bowls of chips at the office party.

We all know those people who leave the public washroom without washing their hands. Then there are those who just do a two-second soap-free splash under the tap.

Hand washing actually is a big deal. It’s not for nothing that the World Health Organisation has a 270-page advisory on the matter. And Friday, which is designated Global Hand washing Day, will see organisations like Unicef, USAid and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention running programmes to raise awareness about hand washing in more than 80 countries.

More than 3,5-million children under the age of five die from diarrhoea and acute lower respiratory-tract infections each year. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries, including South Africa.

Using soap is a must
Professor Barry Schoub, executive director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, says hand washing is the single most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of disease and illness. It’s also cheap. A recent study of 1 250 households in the Western Cape showed that good hygiene reduced illness by 75%.

For Schoub and others who work in virology and communicable diseases, hand washing is no small matter. “Hand washing can help prevent about a quarter of all pneumonia cases and half of all diarrhoeal disease,” he says. “It’s a cheap and effective intervention that’s in your hands.”

Schoub says that in the more deprived parts of the country, poor hand hygiene is usually due to a lack of access to soap and clean water. But other key factors that play a part, not just in poor areas but in affluent ones as well, are genuine ignorance and neglect. Even in developed countries it’s been found that more than 30% of people don’t wash their hands when they’re supposed to.

So let’s set the record straight. Water alone will not clean one’s hands. Using soap is a must. And that quick dab and rinse many people employ won’t do the trick either. Schoub says washing your hands should take at least 20 to 30 seconds. “What we advise is that you should sing the Happy Birthday song twice while washing your hands,” he says.

It’s also important to cover all the surfaces on your hands — nails, thumbs, palms, the back of your hand and the gaps between your fingers all need special attention.

Key moments
There are three key moments when hand washing is essential — after using the toilet, after changing a nappy (yes, many people don’t wash their hands after changing nappies!), and before handling food.

Drying your hands after washing them is also key.

So what to do about the known non-hand washer in the office who comes over and pats you on the back or asks to borrow your stapler? Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine say shame might be the way to go when it comes to getting adults to change their behaviour.

They flashed hand washing messages on LED screens at the entrance of certain service-station toilets and noted which ones were more likely to get people to wash their hands.

The message that worked best was “Is the person next to you washing with soap?”, which suggested that people were more likely to use soap if they thought others were watching.

So next time you’re in the bathroom with a soap-dodger, don’t be shy about staring.