Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wash your hands, damn it!

(this article originally appeared in the February 6 issue of the Harrisburg Patriot News)
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only two out of three people wash their hands after using the restroom.

This leaves approximately a third of the public with dirty hands. Non-hand washers spread their own germs, as well as other bacteria they pick up from bathroom surfaces, and deposit them onto doorknobs, railings, countertops, and any other surface they touch.

At least one non-hand washer was in our area recently. I know this because my 2-year-old son Ryan came down with rotavirus. The rotavirus infection causes severe diarrhea accompanied by vomiting and fever. Because of the extreme dehydration that accompanies rotavirus, more than 50,000 U.S. children are hospitalized each year.

The frustrating part is that this virus can only be spread through fecal contamination. So someone who came in contact with the infected germs, either from themselves or from an infected surface, carried the germs into a public place where Ryan picked it up.

Ryan’s father and I are meticulous, almost compulsive, about hand washing. We wash our hands after every shopping trip, every gas fill-up, every time we shake hands with someone. We wash Ryan’s hands just as frequently and sanitize the surfaces he comes in contact with at restaurants or on shopping carts. We take these precautions because Ryan was born with a severe heart defect. He has already survived two open-heart surgeries and will have at least one more.

Because of the stress already on Ryan’s body, a typical bug hits him harder than a healthy child. A common cold can last three weeks. During his recent bout with rotavirus, Ryan needed an IV and spent several hours in the emergency department. The loss of fluids and lack of appetite made him lose two pounds in just four days—almost ten percent of his body weight. All of this could have been avoided if someone had washed their hands.

The incubation period for rotavirus is 48 hours. Ryan’s limited exposure to other children allows us to make an educated guess about where he picked up the germs. Although I used antiseptic wipes on the table at a family restaurant two days before he got sick, Ryan played with the salt and pepper shakers, which were not cleaned. We also visited a zoo where Ryan touched glass displays. Either of these seemingly innocent events likely put him in contact with the rotavirus germs. Most likely, someone used a restroom, picked up feces from themselves or a surface, didn’t wash their hands, and contaminated another surface.

The CDC and the Procter and Gamble Corporation recently released a study showing that proper hand washing can reduce diarrhea-related illnesses by more than 50 percent in children under 15. This same study also proved that hand-washing drastically reduces pneumonia in children under 5.

But with such an easy solution, why are infectious diseases still spreading so quickly? Perhaps it is because some people are not spending enough time washing their hands. The CDC offers the following tips on proper hand-washing:
  • Rinse hands thoroughly and apply soap. Make sure to get the soap in all areas, especially under the nails and in the knuckles.
  • Rub hands together for at least 10-15 seconds. Children can hum a song, such as Happy Birthday, to mark the time.
  • Rinse well and dry. If you’re in a public restroom, use a paper towel to both turn off the faucet and open the door to exit. This will prevent you from picking up the germs on those surfaces.
If we all work together, we can easily prevent illnesses from spreading through our community and we can help kids like Ryan stay out of the emergency department.

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