The benefits of proper hand hygiene are well-documented. From teaching it to children in schools and homes, to requiring it of employees in health care and food service industries, handwashing is an ongoing topic of discussion in several professional and personal settings.
How long have we been doing this? When did humanity begin to learn the importance of hand washing?
In 1847 a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis was working at a hospital in Vienna, Austria. Dr. Semmelweis suspected a link between the high incidence of postpartum fever and death among patients, and the interns who cared for those patients…interns who also, as part of their duties, performed autopsies. After having the interns disinfect their hands with a chlorinated lime solution, Dr. Semmelweis saw an immediate reduction in fatal postpartum fever among patients. His findings, however, were met with rejection and ridicule. He was let go from the hospital, and the harassment he received in the Vienna medical community drove him to Budapest. Eventually he was committed to a mental institution, where he died. It wasn’t until 1859, when Louis Pasteur– a chemist, not a doctor– developed his germ theory of disease, that the advantages of handwashing were recognized.
Today we know the benefits of handwashing: many transient microorganisms are easily removed with good hygiene practices, and proper hand washing greatly reduces the risk of healthcare associated infections. We know we should wash our hands prior to handling or eating food, after changing a diaper or using the restroom, after coughing or sneezing, after playing outdoors, after playing with animals, and any other time our hands may have been contaminated.
Hand washing is most effective when done correctly. While washing hands, many often miss fingertips, thumbs, the backs of hands, and wrists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 seconds of hand washing to remove disease-causing germs.
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