05/04/2015 07:25 EDT | Updated 05/04/2016 05:12 EDT

Celebrating Hand Hygiene Day Is Good for Your Health

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It's hard to believe but most infectious diseases are perfectly preventable. A few simple actions can keep us safe from the collection of harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and worms. We've known about them for over a century. Disinfection keeps our environment clean. Social distancing allows us to stay clear of those who are contagious. Then there is the use of barrier protection, such as masks, gloves, and yes, condoms, to prevent any chance of a pathogen from harming us. But the best and by far the easiest is a short and sweet practice known as hand hygiene.

An infection only has five routes -- the so-called "five i's"-- to enter our bodies. Three of them involve the skin -- injury, injection, and intercourse. They are the least common and only make up a small percentage of the cause. Most illnesses occur by either ingestion or inhalation. When we breathe, eat or drink, we find ourselves at risk of allowing a pathogen entry. Exposure to contaminated food, water, and air (think of all those droplets from a sneeze) contribute to the problem but for most Canadians, these moments few and far between.

By far, the greatest contributor to our troubles happens not due to the actions of others, but our selves. You may find it hard to believe but when you think about how it happens, it becomes easy to appreciate. Each and every hour, we bring our hands up to our noses and mouths anywhere from five to 15 times an hour. If our hands are not safe, we risk taking in a pathogen. Making things worse, if we touch another person or an object people use, we can spread the contamination and increase the chances of the pathogen being spread.

This route may seem innocuous at best. Yet time and time again, when researchers look at the cause for infectious disease spread, both in healthcare and in the community, the role of hands ends up being the primary reason. Restaurant and cruise ship outbreaks of norovirus tend to be due to infected food handlers who put the pathogen in the food. In daycares, kids spread their illnesses through touch. In the healthcare environment, simply touching an invasive device like a catheter can lead to a host of troubles. It doesn't matter where or who is involved; the hands are involved.

A decade ago, the World Health Organization figured out the reason for a lack of proper hand hygiene as less to do about education and more to do with behaviour. For some reason, hand hygiene had been considered an unnecessary part of daily routine rather than a potentially life-saving practice. They intended to change that mentality by raising the awareness of the importance of safe hands in healthcare. They called it SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands and set aside one day in the year to focus on this one subject. It was May 5.

Originally, the target of the campaign was healthcare but over the years, the message spread. So did the way the day was marked. At first, it was simply a means to remind people and keep them aware. But now, with over 170 countries involved, it has become more like a celebration.

This year, the WHO intends to take SAVE LIVES to a new level -- the social. They have asked people from all lands to contribute to the growing momentum. There's a hand hygiene relay in the hopes of setting a world record. Videos are showing up on YouTube and other sites. All of these are accompanied with specific hashtags such as #5May, #handhygiene.

It may seem a bit much for a simple routine we were taught to do as kids. But when it comes to saving lives, you really cannot go too far. We all deserve to be safe, no matter where we might be. There's no better way to accomplish this task to keep ourselves and those around us free from infection.

If you want to get involved in the festivities, it's easier than ever and requires nothing more than a few clicks. Head on over to the #safehands website and you'll see a selection of messages all with the hashtag, #safehands. Download the one that matters to you and put it on your device or, if you are still old-fashioned, on a piece of paper. Take the photo with the message and then post it. That way, everyone can see your commitment to hand hygiene and of keeping us all safe from infection.

Happy Hand Hygiene Day everyone!


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