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Better Hand Washing as First Line of Defense Against the Flu

February 13, 2013

 Hand Washing and the Flu

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging better, more frequent hand washing as the first line of defence against the flu epidemic which has been occurring in many parts of the world this winter. According to the CDC, deaths in the current flu season in the US have now officially crossed the line into "epidemic" territory and 47 US states now have widespread outbreaks of the influenza virus.  Get more facts on the flu along with prevention tips here.


"With this year's flu epidemic in full force, we are urging everyone to take all of the necessary precautions to guard against the flu and to prevent its spread, including getting a flu shot and practicing proper hand washing," says Paul Alper, vice president strategy and business development for DebMed and 30-year veteran of the hand hygiene industry.


Vaccination each year is regarded as the single best way to prevent seasonal flu, however, the CDC has noted that this year's vaccine is only "moderately" effective with a 62 percent rating; effectiveness typically ranges from 50 percent to 70 percent. Aside from vaccination, the best method to avoid the spread of seasonal flu is to adopt a rigorous hand hygiene approach, with proper hand washing being essential, according to the CDC. However, the frequency and quality of hand washing among the general population is poor.


Improper Hand Washing


Separate studies from around the world show that after visiting the washroom only 70% of people wash their hands, with only 30% of people actually using soap; the remaining 40% use water alone. The sad reality is, people do not wash their hands frequently or adequately enough. In fact, the average person washes their hands for only around 10 seconds which at best will remove about 90% of germs. The problem is the remaining bacteria will grow and can double in number in less than 20 minutes and in 80 minutes can be back to the number prior to washing.


In addition to these in adequate hand washing habits, most people also do not use the correct technique for washing hands and indeed many, critical parts of the hands are missed during normal hand washing, even  when soap is used. The image below shows the most frequently missed parts of the hands when the correct hand washing technique is not followed.


Incorrect Hand Washing Technique


As can be seen, finger-tips in particular are the most frequently missed areas, yet these are the parts of our hands that we most use for contact with surfaces and other people. Therefore, a significant contribution to the improvement in hand washing performance is to adopt the following simple 6-step hand washing technique, in combination with soap and fresh running water.


Correct Hand Washing Technique


It is recommended that hands are rubbed for at least 20 seconds; if a timer is required, it has been suggested the "Happy Birthday" song can be hummed from beginning to end twice! Once rubbing has been completed, hands need to rinsed well under running water and dried using a clean towel or air-drier. "In addition to raising general hand hygiene awareness, I believe that public authorities should also put a focus on educating the simple 6-step technique to hand washing; ideally, this technique along with some simple rules on the when/how to wash hands should be routinely taught to children at a young age where it can become embedded as 'unconscious competent behaviour'" say Alper.

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However, there are also many situations where hand hygiene is required (e.g. after sneezing), but soap and water are not available - this could be while on-the-move or even in workplaces and public facilities where hand washing facilities are simply not immediately or conveniently available. In these situations, the use of hand sanitizer, specifically formulated for rapid use without the need for water rinsing is recommended. For antimicrobial effectiveness, speed of action and human safety, alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol are recommended. 


Additional Flu Prevention Tips


Other flu precautions include good health habits like covering your mouth when coughing. To help battle the flu, here are five more quick tips from DebMed based on information from the CDC and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts:


  1. Avoid close contact: Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too. 
  2. Stay home when you are sick: If possible, stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness. 
  3. Cover your mouth and nose: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Throw out the tissue in the nearest wastebasket and immediately wash hands or use a hand sanitizer.  
  4. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth: Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth before handwashing
  5. Practice other good health habits: Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill.


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