20 seconds to health

Washing hands works wonders in warding away disease

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald Enlarge photo

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

Twenty seconds can save you a bunch of grief, health experts say.

That’s the time it takes to wash your hands – the single best way to ward off the common cold and serious diseases such as infectious diarrhea, swine flu, hepatitis A and pneumonia.

The advice arrives along with National Handwashing Awareness Week, observed annually the first full week of December – this year Dec. 2-8.

“Hand-washing is a principle with us,” said Bari Wagner, an epidemiologist at the San Juan Basin Health Department. “Our WIC (Women Infant Children) program and Nurse Family Partnership educates moms about the importance of hand-washing after changing diapers or before preparing food.”

The department’s restaurant inspectors work with eateries on food safety, Wagner said. The agency’s monthly report on restaurant inspections published in The Durango Herald frequently announces violations for lack of hand-washing or bare-hand contact with food.

Wagner said hand-washing should occur before and sometimes after cooking, eating, using the bathroom, changing diapers, petting animals, putting out the garbage, changing a bandage or tending the sick.

The benefits of hand-washing are incorporated into the Durango School District 9-R curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade, said Sherrod Beale, director of the district’s coordinated school health services.

“Studies show that hand-washing has a direct effect on the number of days kids miss school,” Beale said.

“Hand-washing is the most effective way to reduce germs. You shouldn’t be obsessive/compulsive about it, but be aware.”

“Cover a cough, don’t bite your nails or put your fingers in your mouth or nose,” Beale said. “Wash your hands and get immunized.”

Hot water and soap is the best way to wash hands, Beale said. Sanitizers, which should contain at least 60 percent alcohol, do the job but not as well as soap and water.

Sanitizers aren’t effective if hands are visibly dirty, she said.

Alcohol gels have their place in hospitals, said Guy Walton, the infection prevention nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center.

Gel is easily applied and is absorbed quickly, Walton said. Doctors can sanitize their hands from push-top dispensers in the hallway while walking from room to room, he said.

“Doctors also can sanitize their hands in the presence of the patient,” Walton said.

At old Mercy Medical Center in Durango, there were two patients to a room, Walton said. Doctors had to cleanse their hands when turning from one patient to the other.

“We started using gel there,” Walton said. “It was amazing how much gel we used.”

When washing with soap and water, 20 seconds should be spent lathering and rinsing the hands, Walton said. When teaching children the routine, he suggested a gimmick: Sing twice either “row, row, row your boat” or the “happy birthday” greeting; it takes about 20 seconds.

In some quarters, there is worry that hand sanitizers do more good than harm.

A group called the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics and other antimicrobials, says there is some evidence that infants and children who grow up in a biocide-laden environment may not develop as strong an immune response as they otherwise would.

Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has questioned the use of consumer antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers, saying no studies have showed a link between their use and a decline in infection rates.


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