National Handwashing Week

80% of communicable diseases are spread by touch. Handwashing can make a big difference in the spread of disease!

150 years ago, infectious diseases were the biggest danger in the lives of most Americans. Tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, diphtheria, and a host of then-common childhood diseases were the primary causes of death.

But many people believed that illness was spread only in the air. “Malaria” actually means “bad air,” and the use of that name shows how common it was to think that unwholesome air caused serious illnesses.

A macabre story tells how this changed. 

Dr. Semmelweis’s discovery

Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor in Vienna, noticed that one local hospital had a much higher rate of maternal death than the others. It happened that this hospital also had a morgue.

Doctors dissected corpses and then went to deliver babies. One of these doctors accidentally cut his hand with a scalpel, and soon died with the same symptoms shown by the mothers who lost their lives after their babies were delivered. 

Dr. Semmelweis thought perhaps the doctors were carrying particles from the unwholesome air in the morgue into the labor rooms. He instituted hand washing with chlorine –and quickly saw the rate of maternal death drop from 18% to 1%.

Unfortunately, some 19th century doctors were insulted by the suggestion that they needed to wash their hands. Without a scientific explanation for his observations, Semmelweis wasn’t able to persuade people that handwashing was important. He was ridiculed by his colleagues and ended his life in an asylum for the insane.

Over the next 50 years, the work of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Florence Nightingale gradually changed people’s minds. Clean hands and general sanitation became the norm in health care and then in homes.

The 21st century pandemic

At the beginning of the 20th century, advances in hygiene made big differences in health. The discovery that cholera could be spread by contaminated water helped people avoid that terrible illness. Vaccinations and antibiotic drugs made infectious diseases less common and less frightening.

People still remembered those contagious diseases, though, and they knew that cleanliness was essential.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and that was no longer the reality for most of us in the United States. Non-contagious diseases like COPD and diabetes are much more likely to threaten our health now. Many of the terrible contagious diseases of he past are now so rare in the U.S. that handwashing didn’t seem that important any more.

In 2013, studies found that only 5% of the people observed washed their hands correctly. 33% of them didn’t use soap when they washed their hands. People spent just 6 seconds, on average, washing their hands. Only 20% of people washed their hands before preparing food. Fully 7% of women and 15% of men didn’t wash their hands at all after using the bathroom.

Then came COVID-19. A new generation had to learn about infection. Some people initially rejected the idea that simple handwashing could help against such a serious problem, but the evidence shows that it does. After months of masking up and washing our hands, we saw a historically low number of cases of the flu in 2020.

While National Handwashing Awareness Week has only been observed for a few years, 2021 is a great year to add this observance to your list. Make handwashing a health habit to keep your family safe!