Anyone who has not been living in a cave or at the bottom of the sea for the last few months has probably heard at least enough about the threat of a pandemic of H1N1 influenza (“swine flu”). We’ve been treated to blow-by-blow accounts of vaccine development, and discussions of what does or doesn’t qualify as a pandemic that occasionally seem more like medieval theology than science. But, as Tara Parker-Pope points out in the New York Times, there is one thing each of us can do that has the potential to help a lot; it will even benefit you if you never come within miles of a case of swine flu.
… one of the most powerful weapons against the new H1N1 virus is summed up in a three-word phrase you first heard from your mother: wash your hands.
The Mayo Clinic says that washing your hands regularly, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if conventional washing isn’t possible, is perhaps the single most important habit for good health:
Hand washing is a simple habit, something most people do without thinking. Yet hand washing, when done properly, is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick.
Many pathogenic bacteria and viruses can survive on surfaces like tables, desks, and telephones for an hour or more. Once the organisms have been transferred to your hands, it is very easy for them to be transferred to your face, around your eyes, nose, or mouth. Many studies have shown that the average person, without consciously realizing it, tends to touch his or her face every few minutes. This provides an infection pathway, not only for respiratory illnesses like colds and flu, but also for a variety of gastro-intestinal ailments.
And you do not have to be around obviously sick people to pick up something nasty. A recent study in Britain [abstract] found that many commuters were carrying infectious agents on their hands:
This study investigated fecal bacteria on the hands of commuters in five UK cities. Of the 404 people sampled 28% were found to have bacteria of fecal origin on their hands.
The 28% figure was the average over the whole sample; in some areas the proportion was as high as 57%. Apart from the “Ew-w-w” factor, this is another indication that infectious organisms can survive in the open and be transferred by hand contact.
For all those reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with other health organizations around the world, urge frequent hand washing with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Ordinary soap and water (preferably warm) will do just fine. There is no evidence that special “anti-bacterial” soaps provide any advantage for routine use, and there is some concern that promiscuous use of those products might contribute to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant organisms. (And it should also be noted that products advertised as “anti-bacterial” are usually not effective against viruses – like influenza.) If soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers do a good job, as long as there is not a heavy accumulation of grime on the skin.
The benefits are significant, especially for a preventative measure so easy to carry out. Various studies have shown reductions in infection risk from 20% to 60% in various settings. For what it’s worth, since I started, about ten years ago, being more diligent about washing my own hands, especially when returning home after being out in a public place, I have reduced my frequency of colds by about two-thirds. Now I do understand that the plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s easy and cheap to try. So wash those hands.