How often do you wash your hands?

If your answer is, “Less than 7 times a day”, you're failing in basic hygiene. And it's not just how often you do it, but how well.

Handwashing more than six times a day with soap and water is considered the basic hygiene minimum by the Global Hygiene Council.

If that seems like a lot, consider that you should be washing your hands before you eat (which you likely do 3-4x per day, at least) and after going to the toilet (at least 8x per day). Seven times a day isn't really asking much – at least 10 times is a better goal.

We don't wash enough
People who wash their hands more than six times a day tend to suffer less frequently from infectious diseases. But only 30% of South Africans wash their hands this often – which indicates a poor standard of general hygiene. (Sixteen percent of us only wash our hands 0-2 times a day!)

Professor John Oxford, Chairman of the Global Hygiene Council and Professor of Virology at Queen Mary College, University of London, UK, who visited South Africa this week, says the figure it should be up at 80-90%.

Handwashing is probably the single most important act we can all take to improve public health. The World Health Organisation states that it reduces child deaths from diarrhoea by almost half and from pneumonia by one quarter.

It is especially important in helping prevent disease via the faecal-oral route. In other words, diseases you get when pick up pathogens from eating faecally contaminated food, or touching contaminated surfaces and then your mouth. Then, once you're infected, you can spread disease further – for example if you go to the toilet and don't wash your hands thoroughly.

Not just how much, but how and when

A cursory rinse doesn't really knock out many pathogens, says Professor Oxford. “You need to rub your hands together quite vigorously, and for long enough. I recommend singing 'Happy Birthday' twice while washing your hands – that's about the right length of time.”

Or, if you prefer, count slowly to 20; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 20 seconds as the mimimum effective handwashing time.

Drying hands on a clean towel or paper towel further helps to remove disease-causing micro-organisms.

Apart from handwashing after visiting the toilet and before eating, other important times to wash your hands are after touching animals, after changing a baby's diaper, before feeding a child, and before preparing food or handling raw meat, fish or poultry. It's also a good idea to wash your hands and/or use a hand antiseptic before and after tending to a sick person.

Another area for improvement: food preparation

The Global Hygiene Council recently conducted an observational study, the Cross-Contamination Study, on food-preparation practices that contribute to bacterial contamination and food-borne diseases. Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria are spread around the kitchen and from person to person; it's a common cause of food poisoning.

The study found that up to 90% of surfaces touched during preparation of a simple meal can become contaminated with bacteria from food.

The study filmed mothers preparing stir-fry, salad and children’s lunch box. Results showed significant cross-contamination' especially heavily contaminated items were dish cloths, cleaning cloths and sponges. Volunteers used these to wipe their hands after touching raw chicken and vegetables, and to wipe surfaces and dry fruit after washing.

None of the volunteers washed their hands with soap every time after touching raw chicken and if they did, not with soap for the recommended 20 seconds. Bacteria were then transferred to commonly touched surfaces such as taps.

Also, none of the volunteers washed their hands after touching raw vegetables, nor did they wash all salad items.

“People tend to be more aware that they need to be careful when handling meat,” says Prof Oxford. “But fruit and vegetables can be contaiminated too. The recent outbreak of E.coli infection in Germany was a result of contamination of sprouts by improperly washed hands.”

Handwashing with soap after touching raw meat and vegetables, and disinfecting contact surfaces such as chopping boards and fridge door handles, all help to reduce cross-contamination. Dish-cloths, cleaning cloths and sponges should be washed at high temperatures or disinfected regularly.

– Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, June 2012

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