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05/04/2014 10:12 EDT | Updated 07/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Washing Your Hands Can Help Save Lives

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As we grow from child to adult, we are taught a number of basic skills, some of which we take for granted. From tying our shoelaces to knowing how to eat with a knife and fork, these very simple tasks are used every day without much thought. However, one action, hand hygiene, learned in our youth has an incredible ability to keep us healthy, but also to ensure an even safer world.

We all know the process. Either we lather up for 15 seconds, rinse and dry or we squeeze a little dollop of alcohol hand sanitizer and rub away until it evaporates. We tend to do it at certain times during the day; after using the bathroom, before we eat, and whenever our hands get dirty or at least change environments, such as coming home from outside. In our individual lives, the action may seem menial but to the World Health Organization, it is quite possibly the most important action you can do to keep the public safe.

The reason stems from the realization infections are easily transmitted from one person to another - -and to oneself -- by hands. Most of the studies have been conducted in the health care field but the results are just as important to us. Upwards of 80 per cent of us at some point during the day will pick up pathogenic bacteria or viruses. They could be lying anywhere, from the grocery cart to the office to restaurants and even schools. When we come into contact with contaminated surfaces, the pathogens stick to our hands, waiting for the moment when we inadvertently touch our faces, handle our food or touch another person. However, by keeping hands clean, this mode of transmission is halted and everyone stays healthy.

Because of this link between hand hygiene and health, the WHO has set aside May 5th as a day for celebration of this part of our daily life. The practice has been ongoing for about a decade and grown ever since. In its initial years, the targets were primarily health care professionals but as the message of the importance of cleaning hands has migrated into the public mindset, everyone is now asked to take part in the festivities.

There is, of course, a more serious reason for choosing a day to mark hand hygiene on an international scale. In the last ten years, we've lost considerable ground in the efforts to keep infections at bay, particularly in health care facilities.

The primary problem has been a lack of proper adherence to hand hygiene. Estimates vary across the globe but few reach even 50 per cent without some form of intervention. This lack of compliance has not only allowed infections to run rampant in both our health care facilities and our communities, but it has also helped to spread antibiotic resistance. The impact also costs an incredible amount with billions of dollars spent trying to control these rogue invaders.

The situation is no better at home. Each infection not prevented by hand hygiene may lead to significant hits on the wallet. The numbers cannot be calculated as easily as in structured health care institutions but could be estimated at several thousands of dollars per person. Just by looking at the cost of sick days, prescriptions and other medications as well as the general hits to our quality of life, the impact is obvious. What's worse, when infection happens at home, there is no system in place to resolve the situation. A doctor may take care of the sick person but only you can control the infectious environment.

In light of the evidence, the WHO could have taken a more serious approach to hand hygiene but the reality is little gets accomplished through negativity. By taking this more positive, celebratory approach, there is every hope people will focus less on the consequences of not keeping hands clean -- although never take it for granted -- and spend more attention on enjoying those 15 seconds.

Unlike other celebrations, where you have to get all dressed up and head out to some venue, the best way to mark this occasion requires only a trip to your local sink or bottle of hand sanitizer. You can soap up or squirt out; it's really up to you. As you take those 15 seconds, much like singing "Happy Birthday", you are showing your support for the practice and the goals of the WHO. You can also be assured you will not be alone. This year, hundreds of thousands of people from over 171 countries will be joining in the fun.

If joining a global community to help save lives isn't enough to get you in the mood to revel, there is one more reason why we should all take a moment to take part in cleaning our hands. Back in 2006, a group of researchers learned that this menial task has an incredible side-effect: it can help calm the soul. In this hectic word in which we live, a moment of calm is without a doubt a reason to celebrate.

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