The Importance of Washing Hands: Wash Your Hands, Save a Life

On Global Handwashing Day, we're reminded of the importance of washing hands in stopping the spread of disease.

importance of washing hands

The importance of washing hands with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom, can help stop the spread of diarrhea and other diseases. (Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images)

Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Today is Global Handwashing Day, but that doesn’t mean you're off the hook after the 24 hours is up. While the day was created a few years ago to stress the importance of washing hands to prevent the spread of disease, it only works if you do it every day.

Washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, says the The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, is the best and most economical way to prevent diarrhea and acute respiratory infections which, together, make up the majority of child deaths around the world. The importance of washing hands isn’t just about good hygiene, it’s about saving lives.

But the trick is getting people to do it. If you’re reading this, chances are you have easy access to fresh water and plenty of soap, but that’s not the case elsewhere around the world, especially in developing countries.

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According to a UNICEF report issued in June, just under one-third of deaths among children younger than five worldwide have been linked to diarrhea and pneumonia. Almost all of those deaths—90 percent—occurred in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Global Handwashing Day has been credited with saving a number of lives, but Therese Dooley, UNICEF’s senior advisor on sanitation and hygiene, said in a news release that more needs to be done.

“We want the message to spread from children to families, communities and nations,” she said. “Halting the spread of diarrheal disease is not complicated, or costly, but it is critically important that hand washing with soap becomes routine for everyone.”

The Times of India reports that in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a 21-day hand washing campaign hopes to reach about 600,000 children in primary and middle schools. The hope is those children will take what they’ve learned about the importance of washing hands back home to their families.

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Even in developed countries studies show how the spread of germs can happen though lack of hand washing. Research released today from Queen Mary, University of London and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that 26 percent of people’s hands that were sampled had traces of fecal contamination, including E. coli.

Also discovered: One in 10 bank cards and one in seven paper money bills were contaminated with fecal material. Eleven percent of hands, eight percent of cards and six percent of bills had gross contamination, meaning the bacteria levels were the same to what you’d find in a dirty toilet.

Convinced yet? Despite stunning statistics like these some people still refuse to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom. In 2010 The New York Times reported on a study of people’s hand washing behavior at an Atlanta Braves game and other public venues.

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Researchers positioned themselves inside public restrooms and surreptitiously watched men and women to see how many washed their hands. Overall, 85 percent of people used soap and water, but in a telephone survey 96 percent of people professed to always wash their hands after using a public bathroom.

Seems like Americans aren’t the only ones fibbing. In the English study, 91 percent of people said they washed their hands after using the bathroom.

“People may tell us they wash their hands,” Dr. Ron Cutler, who headed the research at Queen Mary, said in a news release. “But the research shows us different, and highlights just how easily transferable these pathogens—surviving on our money and cards.”

Do you wash your hands every time you use the bathroom? Let us know in the comments.

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