You’re in the restroom at one of your favorite restaurants, and you can’t help but read the extensive instructions to employees about hand-washing: wash hands for at least 20 seconds, clean between fingers and under fingernails, turn off taps with paper towels, etc. Have you ever seen anyone actually wash their hands for 20 seconds outside of a healthcare setting? Don’t overlook this habit, because washing your hands could just save your or someone else’s life. I recently heard that the requirement for posting hand washing instructions represents too much regulation. But I beg to differ. When it comes to public health, I am convinced we need more regulation, and not less.
It may shock you to know that studies suggest that ~80% of people fail to wash their hands after using the toilet, changing diapers, or other potential contact with fecal material. Admittedly, that number drops to 50% or even less in the more developed countries. Why should this be of concern? Because one of the more frequent outcomes of consumption of fecally-contaminated food or water is the norovirus, which has the delightful symptoms of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea. Another is a toxigenic form of a natural inhabitant of the human gut called Escherichia coli O157:H7, which can be fatal. Regulations that enforce good hygiene are one of the most important ways of reducing risks of exposure to these pathogens.
When the pandemic flu returns, SARS or other easily transmissible diseases such as measles, these will be caught from the simple act of touching door handles, taps, levers that work the bathroom paper rolls, pressing buttons that work the air-dryers, chairs we pull back at the tables, buttons we push on the escalator, anything we touch at the gas station, vendor machines, cash dispensers, computer keyboards, and of course, from the filthiest of all, our cell phones…. I could go on.
There is always the counter-argument that we must, in fact need, to continuously challenge our immune systems, unless our system has been compromised. Don’t worry, we have plenty of opportunities to do this – through our drinking water, through the air we breathe, home cooking techniques, pets, travel and all of those everyday habits that expose us to a fascinating array of microbes. But our best defense against illness – and this is true worldwide – is basic hygiene and sanitation, for which hand-washing is the cornerstone. So, let’s continue to encourage each other, and especially those preparing and serving our food, to wash their hands thoroughly. Scanners now exist to assess effective hand washing – I’ll patronize the restaurant that implements this technology.