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Why We Observe National Handwashing Awareness Week

Every year, a specific week is dedicated to spreading the word about proper handwashing: National Handwashing Awareness Week, which begins on December 1 this year.

Washing your hands is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to remain healthy and prevent the spread of germs and disease. While we all know the importance of good hygiene in maintaining our health, we are especially aware of its benefits this year amidst the global coronavirus pandemic. Experts across the nation are reminding us just how crucial it is to wash your hands after going out in public or coming into contact with others.

Here is everything you need to know about National Handwashing Awareness Week and why we observe it.

What Is National Handwashing Awareness Week?

National Handwashing Awareness Week is meant to educate society about the importance of handwashing. This in turn helps decrease the spread of infectious diseases and protect both individuals and communities alike. Each year, individuals and organizations share information about why handwashing is so effective and how to properly clean your hands to prevent the spread of germs and disease.

Less than 200 years ago in Vienna, Austria, the infant mortality rate was 26% and the life expectancy rate was less than 40 years. A young Viennese physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, was the first person to recommend that doctors at one of his clinics (which had a mortality rate of 16%) scrub their hands with a chlorinated lime solution before leaving the autopsy room and rushing off to the birthing room. Upon this initiative, the mortality rate at that clinic dropped to 3%.

It still took decades after this discovery for the practice of handwashing to stick, but once it did, it saved countless lives. We are proud to celebrate the act of handwashing each year.

Why Is Handwashing so Important?

Over the years, many people have mocked the idea that handwashing is really all that effective. However, there are many reasons to practice good handwashing techniques. Here are four reasons why it is so important to keep your hands as clean as possible:

1. Handwashing Prevents Germs From Spreading

If you touch your eyes, nose, and mouth, prepare food or drinks, or touch surfaces or common objects with your unwashed hands, you can easily spread germs to yourself and others. However, such germs that cause common respiratory and GI infections can be killed and removed from your hands simply by washing them with regular soap and water — it’s that easy.

2. Handwashing Prevents the Spread of Infections and Illnesses

Taking a few moments to scrub your hands clean will prevent the spread of infections and illnesses. As stated above, we often touch contaminated objects, surfaces, and even food, as well as our faces, without realizing it, perpetuating the spread of disease. A simple hand wash can stop germs that cause illness and infections in their tracks.

3. Handwashing Saves Children’s Lives Around the Globe

We don’t just wash our hands to protect ourselves — we do it to protect those who are most vulnerable to illnesses and infections. Around 1.8 million young children (under the age of five) die each year from pneumonia or diarrheal diseases around the globe.

However, according to the CDC, handwashing with soap and water could protect about one out of three young children from diarrheal diseases and almost one out of five young children from respiratory infections.

4. Handwashing Helps Prevent Antibiotic Resistance

The higher prevalence of illnesses and infections, the more widespread usage of antibiotics there will be, which can eventually lead to antibiotic resistance — a serious threat to everyone. If you become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria or fungi, you’ll have to rely on your own defenses to hopefully kill it off. This can be extremely dangerous for individuals with compromised immune systems or underlying chronic conditions.

Antibiotics are typically prescribed to individuals with GI or respiratory infections, but handwashing can prevent about 30% of diarrhea-related illnesses and about 20% of respiratory infections, according to the CDC.

How to Wash Your Hands the Right Way

You might think you already know everything about washing your hands, but there are some specific tips that could help you improve your routine. For examples, the CDC outlined some key times to wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Of course, there are plenty of other reasonable times to wash your hands in addition to those listed above. Use your best judgment to keep yourself and others safe from germs.

Not only does the “when” matter in handwashing, but also the “how.” In addition to key times, the CDC provided five steps to a successful handwash:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water.
  2. Apply soap and lather, being sure to get the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry them.

Using soap is especially important in handwashing. While just washing with water is better than nothing, adding hand soap will protect you best. You don’t need special antibacterial soap either — regular hand soap works just as well.

Why We Observe National Handwashing Awareness Week

We observe National Handwashing Awareness Week to help raise awareness and educate society on the benefits of handwashing — including how it can save lives. This cultivates more socially responsible and healthier communities, reminding everyone that we are in this together. Washing your hands doesn’t just protect you; it protects those around you as well. Do your part: Wash your hands!

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