Doctors point to the importance of washing hands a few times a day to guard against various ailments. (DC Image)
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) theme for this year’s World Handwashing Day (October 15) – ‘Clean hands are within reach’ – implies, the easy and inexpensive act of handwashing can make a world of positive difference to human health. Study-based evidence proves that at least a dozen infectious diseases can be avoided simply by making handwashing a daily habit.
Doctors point to the importance of washing hands a few times a day to guard against various ailments, especially those related to the stomach, skin and respiratory tract. Most of the infections are bacterial. By following hand hygiene, one can avoid diseases like gastroenteritis, pneumonia, swine flu and other influenzas, conjunctivitis, Hepatitis A (jaundice), typhoid, cholera, acute diarrhoea, bacillary dysentery, scabies and cerebral meningitis.
Pandemic promoted handwashing
Handwashing assumed paramount importance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Proper hand hygiene using soaps or sanitizers was one of the major safeguards against the Novel Coronavirus, apart from other Covid-appropriate behaviour such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Prior to the pandemic, more than 50% of the people didn’t follow correct handwashing practices in India. During the pandemic, most people started practising handwashing. But the awareness seems to be short-lived.
Though during the pandemic all hospitals were fully occupied with Covid-19 patients, surprisingly a significant drop in the non-Covid related common infections was noted. One of the main reasons cited was the strict infection prevention measures, especially handwashing and hand-hygiene. But now, after the Coronavirus waves have subsided, hospitals are again filled with cases of various infectious diseases, as most people no longer maintain hand-hygiene.
When should you wash your hands?
Visakhapatnam-based general physician, Padmashree-awardee Dr Kutikuppala Surya Rao, who has been educating the public about handwashing, says, "Hand-washing should be made a habit before and after every meal, prior to preparing meals, after shaking hands with anyone, immediately after using the toilet, and on returning from trips outside the house, as one may have handled or come in contact with germ-infested things. People must wash their hands every time after touching a person or object, travelling in lifts, touching the staircase railings, gates and calling bells, and definitely after handling currency notes and coins, and before handling infants, children or elderly people. Proper hand hygiene among healthcare providers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics and visitors to hospitals should also be encouraged in order to prevent nosocomial or hospital-acquired infections."
The proper way to wash hands
As per doctors, there is no point in just washing hands with water, because though the running water will remove superficial dirt, dust and mud, it will be ineffective against viruses and bacteria without soaps or liquid handwashes. Soaps need not be medicated, as all soaps have antibacterial properties.
"People need to be aware that handwashing means not just washing with water but with soap or preferably liquid soap at home and at public places for at least 20 seconds. The palms, fingers, finger tips, back of the palm and wrists should be covered so that even dead or inactive viruses are removed. If water is unavailable or one is travelling, alcohol-based hand sanitizers should be used and multiple people must avoid using the same cake of soap," adds Dr Rao.
Hand-hygiene of cricketers and Ghost Syndrome
Many people have the habit of wetting their fingers with their saliva before turning the pages of a book or while counting currency notes with that same finger. And cricketers are often seen picking up the ball from the ground, applying saliva or sweat on it, rubbing it on their trousers and then passing it on to another player. This unhygienic sequence is repeated multiple times during the game, involving several players on the ground.
Explaining how hygiene is compromised due to such practices, Dr S Vijay Mohan, a senior consultant physician at Care Hospitals, says, "The cricket ground harbours bacteria, viruses, fungi, spores and eggs of worms which can be hazardous for the players’ health and a potential source of several infection. The microbes from the ground may get transferred to the players’ hands, oral secretions (saliva), skin and sweat and trousers, contaminating all the areas. Possible diseases include gastroenteritis, typhoid, tetanus, skin infections, worm infestations and viral infections which may even be life-threatening."
Elaborating, he says, "This can be called Ghost Syndrome because from these various surfaces, the bacteria jump and reach the human body to cause the diseases — (G-ground, H-hands, O-oral secretions (saliva), S-sweat, T-trousers). The term ‘Ghost’ is also appropriate because the unseen bugs present in the soil of the cricket ground can affect the players."
"Our hands and face are micro-biologically the dirtiest parts of our body. They act as vehicles to transport the bacteria and virus into our body’s internal systems through the mouth and eyes as ports of entry. When our regular hand hygiene is compromised, the bacteria easily find their way into our bodies. Therefore, handwashing is so important to keep several diseases away," avers Dr Vijay Mohan.