Story last updated at 2/18/2009 - 11:55 am
The cold and flu season is here again and health professionals are sending out constant reminders for all of us to wash our hands. According to an informal survey posted online at WebMD, washing your hands is the number one piece of advice from medical doctors to help keep germs at bay.
Fact: Handwashing is the most effective way to stop the spread of illness. Many would categorize this fact as "common sense." Yet, how do we really know this fact as a truth? The answer to that question is found in a historical timeline of handwashing as it relates to our health. We'll begin our review in the 1800s.
It was the 19th century before health professionals began to look at the possible connection between illnesses and deaths and handwashing. During this time, up to 25 percent of women who delivered babies in hospitals died from childbed fever, or puerperal fever. This toxic condition, which could develop into puerperal sepsis, was caused by infection in the birth canal.
In 1843, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (yes, the author!), believed that this infectious disease was passed to pregnant women by the hands of the doctors. He advocated handwashing to prevent childbed fever. Unfortunately for many women, his ideas were greeted with disdain by most physicians of the time. Today, a quick search on the Internet finds that puerperal fever is now rare in the West due to improved hygiene during delivery.
Back in time to the 1840s, when Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noted that the mortality rate in delivery rooms staffed by medical students was up to three times higher than the mortality rates in a room staffed by midwives. Upon closer scrutiny, Dr. Semmelweis observed that the medical students were coming directly from performing autopsies to delivering babies. Doctors and students were ordered to wash their hands when moving between the two activities, resulting in a drop in mortality rates to less than one percent! Regardless of this success, however, Dr. Semmelweis died in 1865 with his views about hygiene still largely ridiculed by his peers.
Forward to France and the 1870s where there were so many deaths at one hospital that it was nicknamed the "House of Crime." At the 1879 Academy of Medicine seminar held in Paris, a noted speaker cast doubt on the notion that diseases were spread through the hands. An outraged member in the audience shouted, "The thing that kills women with childbirth fever is you doctors that carry deadly microbes from sick women to healthy ones!"
This outraged member was Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and microbiologist best known for inventing the pasteurization process. Although his efforts were met with skepticism at the time, he remained a tireless advocate of hygiene and is noted for reducing mortality from childbed fever.
When a program to teach hygiene to child-care providers was initiated in 1910, there was a ground swell of opposition from the medical community. Thirty physicians sent a petition to the New York mayor complaining that the practice of hygiene was "ruining medical practice by keeping babies well."
We've come a long way since the early 1900s. Handwashing and other hygienic practices are taught at every level of school, advocated in the work place, and emphasized during medical training. The Center for Disease Control advocates handwashing as the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection. In spite of this, recent studies and reports indicate that lack of or improper handwashing still contributes significantly to disease transmission.
So, there it is, a summary of historical events that support the notion of handwashing to reduce the spread of infections. It takes only 20 seconds to wash your hands, a practice that will help keep you healthy during the cold and flu season. Do it several times a day and enjoy good health.
Sonja Koukel, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Health, Home & Family Development Program for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 796-6221.