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Wash off the bugs (The Straits Times, Mind Your Body, 17 May 2012, Pg 10-11)

17 May 2012



What a person cannot see with his naked eye cannot harm him.

This erroneous belief may explain why good hand hygiene is still not a popular practice, said Dr Ling Moi Lin, the director of infection control at the Singapore General Hospital.

“People cannot see the bacteria or other germs on their hands, hence, they think their hands are clean.”

She said American studies have shown that seven in 10 people do not wash their hands or do not wash them properly after using the public washroom.

But hand-washing is one of the most effective ways to fight infection, said Dr Ling.

Hundreds of studies show that good hand hygiene in health-care workers helps to reduce the incidence of infections in their patients, said Associate Professor Dale Fisher, head of the infections diseases division at the National University Hospital.

In fact, it can save lives and this is the message the International Hand Hygiene Day, which falls on May 5 every year, wants to drive home this year.

Dr Ling elaborates on why people should practise hand hygiene and when and how they should do it.

Hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infection from one person to another.

It breaks the chain of infection so that the bacteria cannot be passed on to another person.

For instance, after using the toilet, your hands may be contaminated with germs from the toilet seat and flush. Washing your hands can get rid of these germs.

Otherwise, when you touch your face, in particular your mouth, eyes and nose, the germs can enter your body. Or when you touch another person and he touches his face, the germs can enter his body.

While most bacteria live harmoniously inside the body, they can cause an infection when their total number, or bacteria load, hits a threshold level.

For instance, bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and fever, which are symptoms of food poisoning.

People who have weakened immunity, such as the very young and the very old, will have a lower threshold for bacteria.

• When they are visibly soiled. Dirt harbours bacteria and other germs.

• After contact with anything “dirty”, for instance, garbage or after contact with high-touch areas or areas often touched by hands. Studies show that germs gather most in these areas.

Examples of high-touch areas are the desk phones, computer keyboards, toilet door handles, toilet flushes and light switches.

• After blowing their noses, coughing or sneezing, even if they have used a tissue. This is because the microscopic germs can pass through the tissue and stay on their hands.

• Before eating or handling food. The germs on their hands could pass on to the food and end up in someone else’s stomach.

• Before and after treating a cut or wound.

Handwashing before you treat a cut or wound prevents germs on your hands from infecting the wound. Handwashing after treating a cut or wound prevents you from being infected by any germs from the wound.

• Liquid soap and water

Water alone will not remove dirt and bacteria. Soap allows these to be scrubbed off easily as they bind to them.

Any regular soap will do. Antibacterial soap kills bacteria more effectively but has not been shown to be more effective than ordinary soap in reducing the rates of colds and infections in generally healthy people, said a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States this year.

What matters more is good hand hygiene, independent of the soap you use.

• Soap from a soap dispenser instead of a bar soap

This is because water tends to pool around bar soaps and invite the growth of bacteria.

• Alcohol-based hand sanitiser (containing at least 70 per cent alcohol)

Hand sanitisers are a quick and effective way to disinfect your hands when soap and water are not available.

Cleaning hands with alcohol-based hand sanitisers takes probably 20 seconds, while washing hands with soap and water needs about a minute including the time taken to lather, rinse and dry the hands.

But alcohol-based hand sanitisers are not effective if the hands are visibly dirty. Dirt needs to be washed off with soap and water.

• The seven-step technique (see graphic) is recommended.

• Those who have difficulty remembering the steps should ensure they scrub all surfaces of their hands and fingers for at least 20 seconds (the time taken to sing Happy Birthday twice). Areas that are often missed out include the thumb, the fingertips and between the fingers.

If you are using soap and water, rub your hands together to make a lather. Rinse your hands well and dry them with a clean or disposable towel or air dryer.
If possible, use your towel to turn off the faucet before discarding it.

If you are using alcohol-based hand sanitisers, rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands and fingers are dry.


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Last Modified Date :26 Sep 2013