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When handwashing was controversial in medicine: Ignaz Semmelweis and proper hand hygiene

 

Hand hygiene is a fundamental practice that still often goes underestimated in our daily lives. Yet, its importance cannot be overstated, especially in the context of public health .

 

Filed under
Infection Control
 
September 13, 2023
 
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When handwashing was controversial in medicine: Ignaz Semmelweis and proper hand hygiene
 

Almost 200 years ago,  Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the causes of puerperal fever and we have known that proper and regular hand cleaning can be life-saving. And yet the Hungarian doctor was once mocked by his colleagues and his theory was dismissed as nonsense.

The crucial role of hand hygiene in maintaining good health

Hand hygiene is a fundamental practice that still often goes underestimated in our daily lives. Yet, its importance cannot be overstated, especially in the context of public health. Proper hand hygiene is not merely a matter of personal cleanliness; it plays a pivotal role in preventing the spread of infections, safeguarding individual health, and promoting community well-being.

First and foremost, hand hygiene is the most powerful defense against the transmission of diseases. Our hands are constantly in contact with various surfaces, which can harbor harmful microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. When we touch our face, mouth, or eyes without clean hands, we unwittingly introduce these pathogens into our bodies, potentially causing illness. Regular handwashing with soap and water, or the use of hand sanitizers when soap is not available, removes these pathogens, reducing the risk of infection.

Moreover, hand hygiene is a key component in healthcare settings. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals routinely practice stringent hand hygiene to prevent hospital-acquired infections. Patients, too, are encouraged to maintain clean hands to avoid complications. Failing to adhere to these practices can lead to dire consequences, as infections can spread rapidly within healthcare facilities.

Hand hygiene is also a matter of social responsibility. In communal spaces, like schools, offices, and public transportation, individuals come into close contact with one another, making the transmission of infections highly likely. By practicing proper hand hygiene, we not only protect ourselves but also contribute to the collective health of our communities. This responsibility became even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when frequent handwashing and hand sanitizing became crucial in slowing the virus's spread.

Additionally, hand hygiene is a habit that should be instilled from a young age. Teaching children the importance of washing their hands properly helps establish a lifelong habit that can significantly reduce their susceptibility to illnesses. 

Not only in times of the coronavirus does it apply: hand washing and hand disinfection are simple and effective methods to contain the spread of infectious diseases. This finding was propagated by the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis as early as 1846. But what is self-evident today was highly controversial back then. Semmelweis' theory that doctors spread diseases due to a lack of hand disinfection was criticized, ridiculed and dismissed as speculative nonsense, and Semmelweis was - in modern terms - bullied and excluded. The widespread view at the time that hygiene was a complete waste of time was still absolutely valid among many of his colleagues.

In conclusion, hand hygiene is not just a mundane task; it's a critical aspect of maintaining good health and preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Regular handwashing and the use of hand sanitizers serve as simple yet potent tools in our arsenal against infections. By embracing this practice, we not only protect ourselves but also contribute to the well-being of our communities, making it an indispensable part of our daily lives.

About the author:

Tatjana Ahmed is the Director of Housekeeping at Grand Hyatt Dubai and the Chairperson of the UAE Housekeepers Association.