Today, October 15th, 2009, is being celebrated as Global Handwashing day in 70 countries around the world. Before today I had no idea that hand washing was celebrated on a global scale, much less that a day was devoted to hand washing. However, the history of hand washing is both interesting, and vital to providing safe health care to patients worldwide.
Before scientists knew about “germs”, which are known today to be composed of a bewildering array of bacteria, viruses, and prions, doctors had no reason to wash their hands. However, in 1861 a doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis published a paper which showed that Obstetricians who wash their hands in a solution of “chlorinated lime” , reduced the mortality of pregnant patients by a significant amount.
Semmelweis’s work was largely ignored, and the maternity ward that he had overseen, where he had decreased mortality rates by initiating hand washing rules, did away with the practice when Semmelweis left and observed once again high mortality rates without anyone questioning why.
It was until Louis Pasteur postulated germ theory that handwashing became a more accepted practice among doctors.
Although Semmelweis died in relative obscurity, he is recognized as one of the fathers of antiseptic theory. While the idea that lack of cleanliness could cause disease, in Semmelweis’s case it caused “child bed fever” when doctors would perform autopsies and then examine patients without washing their hands, now we have a national day dedicated to hand washing.
However, even today when many medical students are taught about Semmelweis’s experiment, there are often instances when doctors don’t wash their hands between different patients rooms. As new drug resistant bacteria make themselves known, the importance of hand washing becomes even more important. The New England journal has reported that hand washing is very much under utilized by doctors and nurses, as many health care workers forget to wash their hands before seeing patients.
As the world celebrates Global Hand Washing Day, health care workers should take a moment to reflect on Semmelweis’s discovery, and realize that hand washing today is as important as it was back in Semmelweis’s day.
It’s Global Handwashing Day! (Do you know where your soap is?)