Why is Handwashing Important?
Remember Ignaz Semmelweis? Of course
don't. But you're in his debt nonetheless,
because it was Dr. Semmelweis who first
over a hundred years ago that routine
can prevent the spread of disease.
"Dr. Semmelweis worked in a hospital
in Vienna whose maternity patients were dying
at such an alarming rate that they begged
to be sent home," said Julie Gerberding,
M.D., director of Center for Disease Control's
(CDC) Hospital Infections Program. "Most
of those dying had been treated by student
physicians who worked on cadavers during
an anatomy class before beginning their rounds
in the maternity ward."
Because the students didn't wash their
between touching the dead and the living--handwashing
was an unrecognized hygienic practice
the time--pathogenic bacteria from
regularly were transmitted to the mothers
via the students' hands.
"The result was a death rate five
higher for mothers who delivered in
than for mothers who delivered at home"
said Dr. Gerberding.
In an experiment considered quaint
by his colleagues, Dr. Semmelweis insisted
that his students wash their hands
treating the mothers--and deaths on
ward fell fivefold.
"This was the beginning of infection
control," Dr. Gerberding said.
was really a landmark achievement,
in healthcare settings, but in public
in general because today the value
in preventing disease is recognized
community, in schools, in child care
and in eating establishments."
Healthcare specialists generally cite
as the single most effective way to
the transmission of disease. "This
one healthcare infection control measure
that has successfully spread throughout
community," she said. "Good
in general, and sterilization and disinfection
in particular, are other standards
largely in hospitals and have become
used elsewhere. And we're always looking
She cited the ongoing 4th Decennial
Conference on Nosocomial and Healthcare-associated
Infections in Atlanta as an example
concerted effort worldwide to prevent
control infections. Sponsored by CDC,
conference has brought together over
international experts in disease prevention
to share information and develop strategies
for infection control.
"It's an astonishing amount of
and expertise gathered in a single
she said. "But for all our expertise
and the tremendous advances we've made
technology and new treatments, we constantly
remind ourselves of the basic in infection
control...wash your hands!"
In the healthcare setting, handwashing
prevent potentially fatal infections
spreading from patient to patient,
patient to healthcare worker and vice-versa.
In the home, it can prevent infectious
such as diarrhea and hepatitis A from
from family member to family member
sometimes, throughout a community.
"The basic rule in the hospital
your hands between patients,"
Gerberding. "In the home, it's
them before preparing food, after changing
diapers, and after using the bathroom."
Unquestioned today as the most important
tool in the healthcare worker's arsenal
preventing infection, handwashing was
readily accepted in Dr. Semmelweis's
Indeed, his pleas to make handwashing
practice throughout the hospital were
met with derision. Another 50 years
pass before the importance of handwashing
as a preventive measure would be widely
by the medical profession.
"But it's the standard now,"
Dr. Gerberding. "And we can't
to count the thousands upon thousands
lives that have been saved because
Semmelweis's discovery." Unrecognized
for the most part by the general public,
Dr. Semmelweis is firmly entrenched
lore as a pioneer who made one of the
contributions in the history of public
In hospitals and homes throughout the
the simple and inexpensive measure
continues to serve as a bulwark against
Five Common Scenarios in which disease-causing germs can be transmitted
by contaminated hands.
- Hands to food: germs are transmitted from
unclean hands to food, usually by an infected
food preparer who didn't handwash after using
the toilet. The germs are then passed to
those who eat the food.
- Infected infant to hands to other children:
during diaper changing, germs are passed
from an infant with diarrhea to the hands
of a parent; if the parent doesn't immediately
wash his or her hands before handling another
child, the germs that cause diarrhea are
passed to the second child.
- Food to hands to food: germs are transmitted
from raw, uncooked foods, such as chicken,
to hands; the germs are then transferred
to other foods, such as salad. Cooking the
raw food kills the initial germs, but the
salad remains contaminated.
- Nose, mouth, or eyes to hands to others:
germs that cause colds, eye infections, and
other illnesses can spread to the hands by
sneezing, coughing, or rubbing the eyes and
then can be transferred to other family members
- Food to hands to infants: germs from uncooked
foods are transferred to hands and then to
infants. If a parent handling raw chicken,
for example, doesn't wash his or her hands
before tending to an infant, they could transfer
germs such as salmonella from the food to
Handwashing can prevent the transfer
in all five of these scenarios. CDC
vigorous scrubbing with warm, soapy
for at least 15 seconds.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Monday, March 6, 2000
Contact: CDC, Division of Media Relations