Only 1 in 20 washes hands properly

Only one in every twenty people washes their hands properly, a new global survey has found. And South Africans are no exception. Although South African adults are worried about infectious diseases, they still don't wash their hands properly.

In a survey of more than 18 000 adults across 18 countries, including South Africa, the Global Hygiene Council has revealed that over three quarters (76 percent) of adults are concerned that they or their families might contract an infectious disease. In South Africa, however, the top three concerns are E. coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella.  These bacteria cause upset stomachs.

The aim of the Global Infection Challenge Survey was to gain an understanding of people’s concerns about the risk of infectious diseases, and infections at home and in the community.

The survey also aimed to highlight the current knowledge of the relative severity of key infectious diseases and infections, and to identify the measures that individuals take to help prevent infections. A common theme of the survey is the important role of hygiene when it comes to controlling and preventing the spread infectious diseases.

South Africa health concerns could easily be put to rest through proper hygiene – more specifically, proper hand washing, Prof John Oxford, Chairman of the Global Hygiene Council, told Health24.

“Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing with soap before handling and eating food, and after using the toilet, along with targeted surface disinfection, are all essential in helping to break the chain of infection,” he stressed.

But if a recent study by a group of environmental health experts at America’s Michigan State University is anything to go on, it seems Prof Oxford’s concerns are not shared by everyone.

People aren’t washing their hands

Based on observations of 3 749 people using public toilets, the Michigan study shows that just one in 20 people wash their hands long enough to kill harmful germs after visiting the toilet. Additionally, a third do not use soap and 10 percent do not wash their hands at all. The research named and shamed men as particularly bad at washing their hands correctly.

The experts charged that insufficient hand-washing contributes to almost 50 percent of all food-borne illness outbreaks. It takes 15 to 20 seconds of vigorous hand washing with soap and water to effectively kill the germs which cause infections. Yet the study found that people spent, on average, only about six seconds washing their hands.  

The findings fie in the face of previous studies, which showed that hand washing appeared to be on the increase, according to lead author, Professor Carl Borchgrevink.

Borchgrevink and his team discovered that that 15 percent of men didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with seven percent of their female counterparts. Also, when men did make an effort to wash their hands, just half of them used soap, compared with 78 percent of women.  People were also less likely to wash their hands in a dirty sink, and hand washing was more prevalent earlier in the day.

Practice makes perfect

“Although people generally know that good hand hygiene is important, in reality they do not always practice it correctly,” says Prof Barry Schoub, the University of the Witwatersrand and a South African representative on the Global Hygiene Council.

“Our studies have shown that 83 percent of adults say they intend to wash their hands every time they go to the toilet, but just 68 percent say they do this with soap and water.”

By practicing targeted hygiene, including regular and effective hand washing with soap, and disinfecting “germ hotspots” in the home, people can minimise their risk of transmitting and becoming infected with harmful microbes, says Professor Schoub.

“Infectious diseases, including respiratory illnesses such influenza and food-borne illnesses such as Salmonella, are regularly transmitted in the home, through improperly cooked food and via contamination from unhygienic kitchen surfaces,” he adds.

“So don’t be complacent about safety in your home – encourage thorough and regular hand washing with soap and ensure that food contact surfaces and commonly touched areas are cleaned and disinfected often.”

When to wash your hands:
•    Before  working with or eating food
•    Before giving medicine, caring for a sick or injured person, and treating wounds
•    Before putting in or taking out your contact lenses
•    After touching pets or their toys, leashes, or their waste
•    After working with food such as raw meat or poultry
•    After going to the toilet or changing a diaper
•    After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing into your hands
•    After treating wounds or caring for a sick and treating wounds
•    After taking out the garbage, touching household or garden chemical, or soiled shoes

Reviewed by Prof. John Oxford, Global Hygiene Council Chairperson:
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
27% - 9953 votes
73% - 26303 votes