Why hand hygiene awareness has never been more important – Read our CEO Brian Waligora’s article on handwashing

Surfaceskins’ CEO Brian Waligora wrote recently on why he thinks this Global Handwashing Day 2020 was the most important ever

Every day is a ‘something to shout about’ day! October 15th 2020 is Global Handwashing Day. It’s safe to say, the simple act of hand washing has never had so much media coverage.  Clearly Covid-19 has reminded us all the importance of hand hygiene, but in all honesty it’s something that we should all be doing, irrespective of a global pandemic. Here in the UK, the government’s #HandsFaceSpace campaign prompts us to take three preventative measures to help limit the spread and impact of the coronavirus. The first of those measures in the government’s is ‘Wash hands’, but why is this basic human behaviour so essential to the fight against disease?

Why washing your hands is so important

The overwhelming majority of infections are transferred by the hand (80%). The impact of which can be disastrous. About 1.8 million children under the age of five die each year from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, the top two killers of young children. Simple handwashing with soap could protect one out of every three young children who get sick with diarrhoea, and one out of five young children with respiratory infections, like pneumonia. 

Washing hands frequently also helps prevent the overuse of antibiotics, which are often prescribed unnecessarily for health issues – the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world. Handwashing also prevents people from getting sick with germs that are already resistant to antibiotics and that can be difficult to treat.

Covid-19 has shocked us all in many ways, but one of the biggest revelations has been just how little we all wash our hands in the fight to protect ourselves from infection and help prevent the spread of disease. But should it have taken a pandemic to teach us all such a valuable lesson? The impact, and evidence, for how damaging not washing our hands is has been there for us all to see for a long time.

Handwashing and Healthcare Associated Infections (HAIs)

One of the most startling statistics regarding the prevalence of Health-care Associated Infections (HAIs), infections that occur while receiving healthcare,  is that they kill more people annually, in both the UK and the US, than road traffic accidents (RTAs).  The easiest way to reduce HAI’s and HAI related fatalities is, you guessed it, to simply wash our hands. Yet, hand hygiene compliance rates, even in health care settings, remain low. 

In comparison, without thinking when we get in any vehicle, we all take the very simple preventative action of putting our seat belts on. But this was not always the case. Our behaviour had to be improved to reduce RTAs. How did we do that? Are there any lessons from this that can be applied to improving our handwashing behaviour?

What lessons can we learn from improving road safety?

In the US, where I grew up, RTAs reached their peak in the late 70’s. I vividly remember clambering into our family station wagon (a family estate car) along with the six other members of my family. The vehicle only had five seatbelts and I don’t recall my parents ever demanding we put one on. That is not because my parents were risk takers who ignored the safety of their children, it is simply because there wasn’t the awareness for the use of seat belts at that time.  

RTA fatalities peaked in 1979 in the USA and in 1965 in the UK, 1965 was the year that it became legal in the UK for all cars to be fitted with seatbelts. Although, it was not until 1983 that it became law to wear a seatbelt in the front of a UK vehicle and not until 1991 for all rear seat passengers to wear them too. 

Innovation in technology by car manufactures has helped to lower the fatality rate, but it is worth noting the 3-point seat was invented in 1958 by Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin, long time before it became legal to wear them in the UK. 

The combined action of legislation and public advertising campaigns espousing the dangers of not wearing seat belts (remember the crash test dummy adverts of the 1980s?) had clear impact on public behaviour. Car manufacturers continued to innovate and improve safety; adding airbags, seat belt warning lights, which have helped lower RTA fatalities. Today, you cannot drive a few feet without a beep informing you that one of your passengers has not put on their seat belt. As a result, RTA death rates have been cut by half since they peaked. With sensors, automated systems and even self-drive cars becoming a reality, the figures should only decrease further. 

During the same period, even though healthcare technology has similarly improved, the number of HAI’s and superbugs have increased.  Factor in anti-microbial resistance (AMR) and we are likely to see HAI related deaths continue to increase for years to come. With scientists making predictions that pandemics, like Covid-19, could happen every five years, the future appears terrifying. But what can we do to make a difference? 

The technology to lower HAIs already exists

Just like the seatbelt in the 1970s which had existed for decades before people really started using it, the technology to reduce HAI and AMR fatalities already exists today. In fact, it’s existed for a long time. The technology? It’s called a sink, soap and hand gel.  But just like in the 70’s, most people are still not using this enough.

It’s reported that 95% of people to do not wash their hands well enough to kill all the harmful bacteria.  The compliance rates in healthcare settings are better but nowhere near 100%.  During Covid-19 we’ve all learnt the correct method and length of time to wash our hands. How many times have we all sung Happy Birthday in our heads? 

Is relying on handwashing enough?

Just like it takes one careless road user to cause an accident, it only takes one person who hasn’t washed their hands to touch and contaminate a surface by leaving harmful bacteria. This is commonly done on  touch points like door pads and door handles and it is exactly the reason why we created Surfaceskins.

In the same way that the leading car manufacturers continue to innovate safety into their vehicles, Surfaceskins is our technological innovation to improve hand hygiene in any setting whether that be hospitals, schools, restaurants, airports, or stadiums.  

Like an airbag complements the necessary action of putting on a seatbelt. Surfaceskins can complement the essential human behaviour of washing your hands. 

In the last few months, while the wearing of masks in public places has become enforceable it is highly unlikely the same could ever be done for handwashing, nor would we want to live in a world where it was. But the facts remain the same washing your hands regularly and thoroughly benefits both the individual and society. So, just like we were once told to “Clunk click every trip”, is it too much to ask that this global handwashing day for us all to realise that “clean hands are safe hands”.