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October 15th marks Global Handwashing Day! This day encourages the practice of handwashing to prevent the spread of infections and save lives. Here are six things you might not know about hand hygiene.

1. Who Was Alexander Gordon?

In the 1790s, Alexander Gordon, a doctor in Aberdeen recognised the contagious nature of delivery-related infections in mothers at birth also known as puerperal fever. He argued that the spread of infections could be prevented by health facility staff carefully washing their hands and wearing clean clothes after attending patients.

This was over 50 years before the Hungarian physician, Semmelweis reached similar conclusions. Two centuries after Gordon, mothers and babies around the world continue to lose their lives to infections acquired at the time of birth which could be dramatically reduced by the increased practice of hand hygiene.

2. How Do I Clean My Hands?

The World Health Organisation recommends an 11-step process to handwashing. This includes scrubbing palm-to-palm, the backs of fingers, and around the thumbs. Have a look at their poster to see if you’ve been washing your hands effectively.

3. Not Everyone Has Soap

WHO and UNICEF carried out a study which collected data from 54 countries, representing over 66,000 healthcare facilities.

The results showed that 38% of health care facilities do not have an improved water source, 19% do not have improved sanitation and 35% do not have water and soap for handwashing. This lack of facilities compromises the ability to prevent and control infections, and ensure a clean, safe birth.

4. The Link With Infection

About 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by unclean hands. Within healthcare settings, hand hygiene is an important infection prevention activity, helping to stop the spread pathogens that cause healthcare-associated infections (HCAIs).

These infections can cause additional illness, long-term disability, or in the most serious cases, can result in death. Hand hygiene can protect both patients and health workers from the threat of infections.

5. Fighting AMR Together

Preventing infections reduces the amount of antibiotics people use and the likelihood that antibiotic resistance will develop.

Preventing healthcare-associated infections means savings in treatment time and health facility resources, and fewer antibiotics used in patient treatment, contributing to the fight against the rising global crisis of Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR).

6. Timing is Everything

When your hands are visibly unclean, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends washing your hands for 40-60 seconds.

Otherwise, WHO recommends hand rubbing with an alcohol-based gel which should take around 20 seconds. This is about as long as singing “Happy Birthday” twice!