Health » Policy & Issues

Updated: October 14, 2009 15:33 IST

The great soap trick

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HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE: Its best to inculcate hygienic practices such as handwashing in Childhood. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
The Hindu
HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE: Its best to inculcate hygienic practices such as handwashing in Childhood. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

It’s World Handwashing Day on October 15. And soap and water have never assumed greater significance than now with so many health risks around, writes GEETA PADMANABHAN

Karishma is a worried mom. As she rubs the moisturiser on her sleeping seven-year-old’s hands (“Won’t allow it when awake!”) every night, she wonders if she’s overdone the “Wash-your-hands!” routine. “He goes upstairs to pick up a book, comes down and heads for the basin and liquid hand sanitiser,” she moans. “Now I find his hands have gone a bit rough.”

Overdoing it? Maybe. But many homes follow strict ground rules on cleanliness. Bathe when you return home after a hair-cut, after attending a funeral or after visiting a hospital. Just wash hands, feet and face when you come home. At an earlier time, you couldn’t pass that brass container and chombu in the courtyard without the ritual washing-up. No one stopped to explain the traditional family habit. Now handwashing is serious business. October 15 is Global Handwashing Day. The WHO programmes and the Global PPP for Handwashing with Soap hand out clear directions. Hands contaminate food, spread germs. Surface touch carries unknown risk factors. And AH1N1 has made life scarier.

Spreading infection

“Touching is an important mode of passing organisms from carriers to susceptible individuals,” says Dr. T. Sundararaj, Microbiologist. “Handwashing advice, taught in the KG class, is not for doctors and surgeons alone. It’s mandatory we wash our hands throughout the day. We touch pathogen-breeding surfaces everywhere. Raw meat has them. Veggies carry organisms from farm manure. A good hand scrub will save us from typhoid, cholera, food poisoning and dysentery.” Germs will wash off mechanically with plain water, he adds. To kill restroom specialists use a disinfectant.

“Soap-and-water is all that is needed for the normal population,” says Dr. N. Anand, Consultant Dermatologist. “Sing ‘Vandemataram’ to time (15 seconds) the scrubbing. Scour under nails and around wrists as well. Mind the railings in public places. They’re the worst offenders in spreading flu and cold germs.” Fine, don’t laze out on the scrub routine. But chapped, dry hands don’t look pretty! “The layer of epithelial cells will grow back,” assures Dr. Sundararaj. “Frequent handwashing prevents any number of medical conditions. A small price to pay.”

Dr. Anand recommends a moisturiser/drop of oil after drying. “Hand eczema or dermatitis is a common result of excessive washing, so wash, but not obsessively,” he says, reaching for a cream he keeps handy.

The idea of hand-hygiene management has got pharmas crowding supermarket shelves with a liquid overflow — in 100-250 ml containers and refill sachets, consumers can take their pick for washbasins and kitchen sinks, or pick up “dry” cleaning hand-sanitisers to go into handbags. These claim to be anti-bacterial and promise a 99.9% live-germ-free wash. And they’re selling! A chain store in Mylapore gleefully announced that handwash bottles were being snatched off the racks.

Simple solution

The simple act of scrubbing your hands with soap and water is now a science, art and a subject of study. “Sustaining ServeReady™Hands is the result of a disciplined five-step system,” says the Handwashingforlife website. For effective hand-cleansing in offices — a) fill a risk-assessment worksheet, b) establish and optimise safe levels for handwashing frequency, c) start an online training and certificate programme, d) graph progress of the hand-hygiene regimen. Mmm... scrub your hands blue, pull on single-use gloves and cover your mouth before sneezing.

But unknown risks abound in the food-processing and cooking/serving industries. Do we have procedures to ensure cleanliness standards in them? Are our current monitoring mechanisms reliable? The website suggests Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) technology to measure acceptable cleanliness levels. It suggests training the staff by documenting and demonstrating what clean is - beyond sight and touch. To overcome underwashing. Hands-on.