Hand-washing for personal hygiene: A new global phenomena


Handwashing is now a new normal phenomenon of human beings.

By Dr. Anand Bhabhor

The history of hand washing as a medical practice for hygiene is some 130 years old. Until mid 1800, there was no practice of hand washing, Doctors would go from dissecting a cadaver to deliver a child. In 1846, mothers and their infants were dying at a staggering pace postpartum- often at a rate of 40% in some clinics. The cause was childbed fever or puerperal fever. There was significant mortality in the maternity ward due to childbed fever during that time. Hungarian medic Dr. Ignaz Semmenlweis of Vienna General Hospital made a breakthrough observation that contaminants from cadavers remaining on the hands of doctors may be the cause of puerperal fever. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, the physician responsible for implementing hand washing in practice in his clinics, drastically got recognition and garnered national attention for his knowledge and for being targeted as a social pariah for going against contemporaries. He is known as the father of hand hygiene and infection control practices and savior of mothers at that time.

Religious handwashing practices have been around for thousands of years in Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and other cultures. It did not have scientific bases but seem to be most logical way to maintain hygiene. Good hand washing practices are integral part of protection against diseases and for healthy life.

Handwashing is the most effective way to prevent spread of infections like diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections. Handwashing with soap is a key approach for disease prevention.

In the era of Covid 19 pandemic, one of the measures to stop the spread of coronavirus is hand washing.

It must be first time in the human history that whole world has adapted a new habit of hygiene as “hand washing”

Cleaning hands before eating is a habit from centuries, which almost all part of the world follow. But washing hands before eating is progressively going out of habit with achievement of science and technology, surprisingly contrast behavior. Availability of packed food items, roadside food items, ordering food outside is a recent social behavior which is gradually changing with time. Regarding hand hygiene, there is a false sense of security that prepared and packed food is already cleaned and no need to wash hands before consuming it.

The biggest reason for not washing hands is probably eating at workplace, and while working or doing something and eating simultaneously; which has become our priority. People tend to focus on work, activity or enjoyment and eating as a simultaneous action. There was a time when people used to pray before eating food, and eating practice was a dedicated family gathering. Our eating habits have become sub conscious and hand hygiene has been ignored. But the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded all of us regarding the simplest and most effective and probably most ancient way of disease prevention.

Since last few months there is a tremendous and continuous awareness about hand hygiene. And people have practically accepted hand washing as a routine practice. The best part of practice is that it may reduce the incidences of other illnesses which spread through poor hand hygiene.

Sanitization industry has got identification during the pandemic. Those who can afford have arranged for sanitization machines, people carry sanitizers all the time, hand washing made compulsory at workplace etc. Simplest method of hand hygiene with soap has been common practice almost in all classes of the society.

As the hand washing practice in medicine has reduced the incidence of mortality of the patient, similar behavior of the community will definitely help to reduce the spread of infections and will help the community at large.

This simplest and effective practice of hand washing will change human behavior for a long time with control of spread of infection in coming time. Handwashing is now a new normal phenomenon of human beings.

(The author is Additional, Director, Critical Care Medicine, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre. Views expressed are personal.)

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