Global Handwashing Day is this week! Handwashing is such a crucial way to help prevent foodborne illness and the spread of bacteria. This easy and effective method is not just an important food safety practice, but also a helpful way for each person to do their part. Not only is it promoted to be a common practice, but did you know it is sometimes considered a religious or a cultural custom? For whatever reason you have to wash your hands, here is a little bit about the practice and why Global Handwashing Day is as important as the practice it seeks to promote.

History

The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, who founded Global Handwashing Day in 2008, provides a brief history of how handwashing was linked to prevention of illnesses. On its website, the agency tells the tale of the founder of this practice, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician. During his tenure at Vienna General Hospital, he observed that women in the physician wing of the maternity ward were more likely to develop infections than the neighboring mid-wife ward. He soon found that physicians would visit their laboring patients after performing autopsies – a practice in which mid-wives did not participate. Dr. Semmelweis linked the transfer of “cadaverous particles” as a reason for increased infection and death in the physician maternity ward. He demanded a new doctrine – all physicians must wash their hands with chlorine. Infection and death rates plummeted.

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Although the method worked, other physicians did not take kindly to Dr. Semmelweis’ recommendations. They concluded that Dr. Semmelweis blamed them for the deaths of their patients. Handwashing was not considered a popular idea. In fact, it was not until the 1980’s, during a string of health and foodborne illness outbreaks, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended handwashing as a viable practice to prevent the spread of disease. With a national agency backing the cause, handwashing became a more frequently promoted and adopted practice.

In the 2001, the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing was born. In the years following, the agency went to various countries, like: Benin; China; Colombia; Indonesia; Kenya; Madagascar; Nepal; Nicaragua; Panama; Tanzania; Uganda; and Vietnam to promote the practice. In 2008, they took promotion to the net level, and founded Global Handwashing Day.

On the first Global Handwashing Day, on October 15, 2008, 120 million children in 73 countries, spanning 5 continents, participated in washing their hands in soap to commemorate the day. In 2009, the numbers raised to 200 million children in 83 countries.

The Relevance of the Holiday

With the creation of Global Handwashing Day, health agencies, schools, leaders, and groups from around the world have worked together to promote handwashing. Their goal is to make the practice of handwashing universal and promote its benefits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the practice as “one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.” The agency has even created a special page on their website devoted to handwashing. They provide scientific evidence and statistics – as if anyone could now argue the necessity of the practice.

Other food regulatory agencies, like Foodsafety.gov, consider handwashing as “the most economical, yet often forgotten way to prevent cross-contamination.” Handwashing is a cheap and simple way for anyone to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy.

The Method

The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing have provided a variety of resources on handwashing for everyone. The best part, is how easy the process is. You simply wet your hands (preferably with warm water). Completely cover your hands in soap. Massage and scrub the soap into all surfaces of your hands and wrists – including the palms, between your fingers, under your nails, and the backs of your hands. Why so many surfaces? Foodsafety.gov is quick to point out that “Microbes are present on all surfaces of the hand, often in particularly high concentration under the nails, so the entire hand should be scrubbed.”

This process should take about 20 seconds – or the amount of time it typically takes someone to sing the tune “Happy Birthday to You” two times. Then, you thoroughly rinse off all of the soap from your hands, and dry completely with a clean towel or paper towel. If you do not have a cloth, you can waive your hands in the air to dry. The World Health Organization recommends that the entire process take approximately 40 to 60 seconds. It really is fast and simple! It only takes a few moments of your day to prevent illness.

When Should I Wash My Hands?

The good news is that you do not need an excuse to wash your hands. However, if you absolutely need a reason, Foodsafety.gov recommends washing your hands in relation to the following activities:

  • Before and after handling food,
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound,
  • After using the bathroom,
  • After changing a diaper,
  • After handling pets,
  • After handling pet waste, pet food, or pet treats,
  • After touching garbage,
  • After tending to a sick person,
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, and
  • After handling uncooked eggs or raw meat, poultry, or fish and their juices … “

For more tips or information about the benefits of handwashing, visit the Global Public-Private Partnership’s website or the United States Department of Agriculture’s helpful posters here.

But, What if I Do Not Have Soap or Water?

Do not fret if you lack the access to soap and water. There are many occasions, like camping for instance, that you may not have immediate access to clean water and soap. Health agencies like Foodsafety.gov and the World Health Organization have a solution – antibacterial hand gel or hand sanitizer. These agencies caution that many do not properly use hand sanitizer to its full potential, which could leave their hands contaminated. It is recommended to use a hand sanitizer solution comprising of at least 60% alcohol. The World Health Organization recommends that you use enough to cover your entire hand, and not wipe it off before it dries. The agency has even created a handy poster here for anyone who is concerned about their use of hand sanitizer.

What are you waiting for? Join us in celebrating the benefits of handwashing by doing just that – washing your hands.

Sources:

www.foodsafety.gov

http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome

www.cdc.gov

http://globalhandwashing.org/

http://www.who.int/en/