10/11/2013 12:29 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Lather Up for Global Handwashing Day

Every day of the year, it seems, is a special day devoted to some aspect of our lives. The most obvious are Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter and of course, Canada Day. But there are a number of lesser known days that mark a special part of our human existence. In October alone, there are days commemorating The United Nations (October 24th), vegetarians (October 1st) and even the Internet (October 29th).

October also brings in a day that commemorates what should be a part of our daily activities but for many is either forgotten or simply ignored: handwashing.

Back in 2001, UNICEF, the CDC and a consortium of companies, academic institutions and international organizations decided that hand hygiene, the most important part of infection prevention, needed to be recognized. They formed the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap (PPPHW).

In 2008, the International Year of Sanitation appointed by the UN General Assembly, PPPHW decided that a yearly event was needed to celebrate handwashing. The group chose October 15th as the day of commemoration and called it Global Handwashing Day, or GHD. Soon dozens of countries were signing on to help spread the message of hand hygiene and the importance of washing with soap and water.

For most of us in Canada, however, GHD might be as well-known as Talk Like A Pirate Day and perhaps have even less meaning. It's not a surprise as handwashing is not considered -- other than perhaps in the public health field -- to be an incredibly important part of living. There are the usual necessary times for lathering up, including after using the toilet and before eating a meal, but for the most part, the sink and soap combo don't get much attention.

When it comes to the research, there is every reason to think that we should be recognizing GHD not only on October 15, but all year round. There is more than ample evidence to show that washing hands regularly can reduce the impact of infections. In a review spanning over 45 years of research on the topic, the simple act of using warm water, soap and lathering for 15-20 seconds reduced the potential of infections by over 30% for stomach troubles and more than 20% for respiratory illnesses.

For the average person, this could mean one to two less bouts of illness per year, saving not only physical annoyances but also those valuable sick leave days. It also means less absenteeism at schools and daycare centres. There are also fewer chances of tummy troubles and other gastrointestinal problems, especially when on vacation.

Yet saving lives and time is just one of the benefits of handwashing and research has shown that taking a few moments to clean the hands may help to improve our psychological state and even improve team dynamics.

During the Second World War, in 1942, during the movement of the allies in North Africa, there was a conflict known as the Battle of El Alamein. This conflict occurred on one of the toughest regions of the planet and led to an extended campaign that dispirited many of the troops. Yet, when all hope seemed to be lost, General Bernard Montgomery took over the campaign and insisted on one major change: hygiene and the use of hand hygiene. Montgomery has seen from previous encounters that morale was directly linked to hygiene; he stressed it would be a main priority. What he undertook was revolutionary in wartime efforts and led to not only an increased morale but an eventual victory. The lessons of hygiene from that moment continue into today's military training where being hygienic is just as important as being victorious.

In hospitals and health care facilities, hand hygiene has brought people together for incredible team building exercises. While many comprise of games and cheers and other internal activities, one proud display of hand hygiene teamwork are the increasing collection of videos that focus on the importance of hand hygiene to help save lives.

Some are incredibly brilliant, such as the Jefferson University Hospital's take on Michael Jackson's Beat It called, Wash 'Em. Others like the Vancouver Coastal Health Hand Hygiene Dance are simply sublime. But what is even more impressive is that not only is team morale built, it improves the quality of the patient experience.

Yet, perhaps the most incredible benefit of handwashing is the ability to soothe the soul. Both in 2006 and 2010 articles were published showing that washing hands could help restore one's morality and also help to deal with hard choices. From the perspective of the researchers, the combination of solitude, calming flow of water and the remedial action of lathering all contributed to restoring mental and psychological balance.

Regardless of the reason, there is little doubt that handwashing is an important part of all our lives and the reason GHD exists. While there may not be any formal events happening in your area of the world, there is a very easy way to ensure that you become one of the revelers. On October 15th, after you take that minute to wash your hands, make sure to tell someone, whether in person, by Email or even on social media and let them know that today is a special day and that you have joined in the celebration. You might find even find yourself dancing or even humming a special tune made specifically for GHD by the internationally famous group, The Wiggles.