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“The Single Most Effective Way to Prevent the Transmission of Disease”

The fastest and easiest way to avoid the office cold or flu this winter doesn’t involve any miracle drugs.

The organizers of National Handwashing Awareness Week, which runs through Saturday, want you to know that washing your hands with soap and warm water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, is the best way to stop the spread of germs. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite handwashing as the “single most effective way to prevent the transmission of disease.”

two hands washing on a blue backgroundDr. William Sawyer’s Henry the Hand Foundation is the driving force behind the public awareness week, which began in 1999 in response to a flu vaccine shortage in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Spread the word, not the germs,” is a favorite catchphrase for the campaign that encourages everyone to follow the CDC recommendations for handwashing the right way.

But routine handwashing isn’t just about staying healthy through the winter. It’s also about improving public health for everyone, and getting better value out of health care.

The effects of poor hygiene in the medical system can be costly. As Rick Weiss noted recently, each time a health care professional fails to wash his or her hands, it costs a hospital $1.98. That may not sound like much, but, according to Duke University researchers, over the course of a year, it can add up to $1.77 million at a typical 200-bed hospital.

Handwashing can also help prevent the spread of infection, both in hospitals and at home. Remember the recent MRSA outbreaks? The methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria spreads largely through poor handwashing habits in hospitals and the community. What’s more, CDC estimates that between 78,000 and 90,000 people die from hospital-acquired illnesses each year, many of them directly linked to poor handwashing.

So this week—and this year—make an effort to wash your hands for 15 to 20 seconds with soap and running water, and dry them with a paper towel before and after eating, after using the toilet, during food preparation, when you arrive home, after leaving the hospital or doctor’s office, or any other time your hands seem dirty. Or reach for an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which will also do the trick.


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