We shouldn’t have to write this editorial. We’ve been taught since childhood to wash our hands, especially after going to the bathroom. Yet poor hand washing continues to contribute to the spread of numerous diseases, putting the lives of many Americans at risk and wasting money.
A study published in the most recent edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases found that poor human hygiene, not food processing, was the major pathway for the spread of drug-resistant E. coli. The researchers, who work for the Public Health Service and universities in the United Kingdom, Denmark and Saudi Arabia, focused on a difficult to treat strain, Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamase (ESBL)-producing E. coli.
E. coli bacteria live in the intestines of people and some animals. It is mostly harmless. But, some forms of E. coli can cause illness — and even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are about 350,000 cases of illness attributable to E. coli annually in the United States, requiring more than 3,700 hospitalization and 31 deaths.
The British-led research team examined human feces, sewage, fruits, vegetables and raw meats to trace E. coli transmission routes. While E. coli did appear in some raw meat samples — mostly chicken samples — it was most prevalent in the fecal samples. In addition, there was little cross-over between the strains of found E. coli in the meat samples and the human excrement.
“Our findings show that actions on the food chain, however desirable for animal husbandry, are unlikely to contribute to reductions in human infection. Better potential control points are prevention of transmission by good post-toilet hygiene,” the researchers wrote. Better treatment of urinary tract infections and a vaccine would also help reduce the spread of the E. coli bacteria, the wrote.
In other words: Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom!
In case you need a hand-washing tutorial, the CDC offers step-by-step instructions. In short, use running water (it doesn’t have to be hot) and soap, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse and dry. If running water and soap aren’t available, use hand sanitizer.
You should also wash your hands after helping others use the toilet and after changing diapers, before preparing food and before eating. Also, wash your hands after sneezes and coughs into them. Hand washing is in order after handling pet waste and pet food.
Shockingly, many doctors don’t seem to be particularly diligent about washing their hands, which contributes to unnecessary infections and other complications. Less than a third of hospital physicians follow hand-washing guidelines, according to a study published by Cambridge University Press. Nearly half of nurses do, the study found.
Hospital-acquired infections are one of the top causes of death in the U.S. There are an estimated 1.7 million cases of these infections each year, resulting in nearly 100,000 deaths a year. These infections, which have a variety of causes, including improper hand washing among medical personnel, cost hospitals up to $45 billion a year, according to one study. After increasing for 20 years, these infections are on the decline among many hospitals, according to CDC data — in part because of increased reporting requirements and a reduction in federal Medicare reimbursements to hospitals that don’t reduce their healthcare-associated infection rates. Preventing the spread of infections doesn’t just improve health outcomes; it can help save money.
One of the best ways to stay healthy is deceptively simple: Wash your hands!