Step up to the sink

16th of September 2011
Step up to the sink
Step up to the sink

Hand washing with soap is in fact among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent the spread of a whole host of viruses, such as Norovirus, Rotavirus and Influenza, as well as diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia. Kimberly-Clark Professional explains why hand hygiene really is a public health issue.

When Swine Flu broke out in the UK in 2008, a major public information campaign from the Department of Health warned: "To reduce the risk of catching or spreading the virus you should... wash your hands regularly with soap and water." You could also use a hand sanitiser gel where soap and water are not available, it recommended, although hand washing with soap was the preferred option.

It was a time of panic and the advice was eagerly embraced by the public. Hand sanitiser sales sky-rocketed in the wake of the publicity, with some brands seeing sales up as much as 1,500 plus per cent.

Hand washing with soap is in fact among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent the spread of a whole host of viruses, such as Norovirus, Rotavirus and Influenza, as well as diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia. These sort of viruses and germs can get into the body by touching eyes, ears nose and mouth - and that is something everyone does frequently. In one study in 2008 adults were found to touch their face (eyes, nostrils and lips) an average of 15.7 times per hour.

The viruses are also passed from person to person up to six times which means they can infect up to seven people first and then six more people. However, the data would suggest the public health message that proper hand washing with soap is a simple route to preventing disease spreading has yet to hit home with everyone.

Although people around the world may wash their hands with water, many do not wash their hands with soap at critical moments, including after going to the toilet and before handling or eating food, research suggests. A rather unsettling study in 2008 found that more than one in four commuters had bacteria from faeces on their hands. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine swabbed 409 people at bus and train stations in five major cities in England and Wales to arrive at that statistic.

Great Britain's 12 million cases of Norovirus, Gastroenteritis, MRSA, E.Coli and Swine Flu infections are mainly down to dirty hands, it concluded three years ago. The study marked the first Global Handwashing Day, an annual event particularly aimed at children and schools, aiming to inspire good hand washing practice at an early age.

Each year over 200 million people are involved in the event in more than 100 countries worldwide. The event is also endorsed by many governments, international institutions, civil society organisations, charities, private companies, and individuals.

The next Global Handwashing Day takes place on October 15 this year.

This year scientists from the London School of Hygiene will be putting together a 'mobile phone map' of the UK, analysing the level of germs on people's mobile phones.

Another hand washing project focused on children is the EU funded E-bug project, which aims to ensure that children from all over Europe leave school with an understanding of hand and food hygiene. Teaching packs are made available online for both primary and secondary school children.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also has hand washing on its agenda, focusing on the healthcare sector.  It has held its annual global campaign called 'Save Lives: Clean Your Hands', advocating good hand washing practice among carers, since 2009.

Good hand washing practice is particularly important when dealing with the elderly or vulnerable as they are most susceptible to germs. So this campaign targets healthcare workers in a bid to improve hand hygiene and control the secondary spread of disease, such as MSRA and E.Coli.
Most healthcare-associated infections are preventable through good hand hygiene – cleaning hands at the right times and in the right way saves lives, is the message.

Sanitisers are very also useful if hospitals and food processing facilities to offer added protection to kill germs in areas at high risk, WHO says.

The challenge everyone is facing is how to make hand washing with soap, or using sanitiser where soap and water are not available, an automatic behaviour carried out in homes, schools, workplaces, hospitals and communities. What all these sorts of public environments have in common is that they offer germs the ideal environment to multiply, as lots of people are in contact with the same surfaces. 

Doors, stair railings and lift buttons in particular are touched repeatedly by everyone in the building. And even in more 'personal' areas germs are breeding. A study by the University of Arizona in 2002 which found that the average desk harbours 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat.

Richard Millard, office building segment manager, EMEA at health and hygiene solutions company Kimberly-Clark Professional, says: “We are targeting the workplace sector with the clean hands message, capturing an audience which was not brought up on hand hygiene messages in the same way that children have been in the past few years”.

Ideal environment for germs

He comments: “Bacteria such as the influenza virus can live on surfaces for 24 to 48 hours. Recent research shows that most illness-based absence from the workplace is caused by colds, flus and stomach upsets.”

Absenteeism through these sorts of illnesses costs businesses an estimated 800 euros per employee per year, and with staff either absent or performing below par and spreading their germs there will be a negative impact on a company’s overall productivity and profitability.

Kimberly-Clark Professional recently launched The Healthy Workplace Project in the UK following success with the project in America. The scheme offers companies advice and practical support to enable them to install the best possible hygiene systems around the workplace and, most importantly, inspire staff to use them regularly – steps that could help prevent the spread of germs that cause a range of illnesses and the resulting costs to the business of absenteeism.

Businesses who sign up will be offered the opportunity to receive an assessment of their whole working environment, from reception desks to individual workstations. They are then given tailored recommendations on where to place products – including hand sanitisers – that could make a real difference to overall hygiene levels in the workplace.

Richard Millard says that a company which had two buildings with around 500 people each in the same city took part in a pilot of The Healthy Workplace Project in America, with some interesting findings. One of its buildings adopted the project and the other did not. After 10 weeks, they building taking part was experiencing absenteeism levels of 45 per cent less than the control building. On top of that, three quarters of employees involved in the trial reported that their morale was boosted by their employer having taken an interest in their welfare.

A study in Ohio with FedEx office workers also demonstrated that teaching staff good hand hygiene practices can have a marked impact on staff sickness levels. The study found that usage of a hand sanitiser and a simple education programme reduced absenteeism by 21 per cent versus a control group.

The evidence suggests that much progress has been made in the last few years on getting the message out to the public on the importance of hand washing with soap. But there is still work to be done.

Expert microbiologist Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tells Hygiene for Health: “I think public awareness of the importance of proper hand washing is a long way up on 10 years ago, but there is no scientific data available at the moment to back that up. When there is a scare such as that elicited by the flu outbreak people will listen, and afterwards awareness drops back.”

The good handwashing guide

You should spend the same amount of time washing your hands as singing Happy Birthday twice.

Step 1: Wet your hands

Step 2: Apply soap

Step 3: Work soap into a lather

Step 4: Ensure all areas of the hands are rubbed with lather, taking care to cover commonly missed areas such as fingertips, around the nails, between fingers, in the cup of the palm and round the back of the hands. This step should take around 10 -20 seconds to complete

Step 5: Rinse hands well under clean running water to remove all the remaining lather

Step 6: Dry hands with a paper towel. Drying your hands with paper towels removes up to 77 per cent of bacteria on them

Step 7: Ensure that hands are fully dry, between fingers and around finger nails.

Hand rubbing with sanitiser. Not to be used as a replacement for good hand washing and drying. It does help to keep hands clean as an additional step after hand washing or where water, soap and towels are not readily available.


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