Hand washing still ‘best defense’

By Josette Keelor

How clean are your hands?

Good hand washing practices are a natural response to virus outbreak, such as Ebola, but according to Risk Analyst David Robinson, many people don’t clean their hands properly, even when they think they do.

Area health professionals like Kelley Wonsetler, infection control preventionist at Warren Memorial Hospital, also recommend hand washing for the preventing the spread of disease.

“It’s you’re best defense,” she said.

She and Robinson recommended washing hands for at least 20 seconds — the length of the song “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice.

Water temperature doesn’t necessarily matter, according to Dr. Charles Devine III, health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District.

“It should be comfortable. In the old days, soaps were not so well designed as they are now and required hot water to work well. Current soaps work perfectly well in cold water,” he said.

“All that hot water does is make for an increased chance of scalding your hands,” he said, “… and lead to uncomfortable hands afterwards.”

Furthermore, hot water doesn’t kill bacteria, he said. It’s the vigorous rubbing action of using soap for up to a minute that pulls bacteria from hands, and running water that washes away bacteria.

“It doesn’t matter if the germs are alive or dead,” he said. “The object is to get them off your hands.”

But hand washing is a bit of a misnomer, said Robinson, a food safety instructor of ServSafe food handler classes, based in Harrisonburg.

“Hand washing should be finger washing,” he said. “Fingers are the problem.”

He said people often pour soap or hand sanitizer on their palms and forget to clean their fingers — “And there’s where the pathogens lie.”

For best effectiveness, scrub hands entirely, including fingernails, cuticles and the area around rings.

Hand washing recommendations for health care workers aren’t that different from the ones for everyone else, Devine said — but he does advise extending those 20 seconds to 40 or 60, to make sure hands are really clean.

“Those are the general recommendations published by World Health [Organization],” he said.

Robinson agreed, “You cannot over wash your hands.” Hand contamination comes from contact with surfaces, such as other people. Surfaces also include door handles, light switches, drink containers, money and cell phones.

Because the Ebola virus can transfer from one person to another by bodily fluids left on an object they both touch, Devine said area hospitals ensure safety by preparing to treat infected patients in a clean environment and correctly disposing of materials afterwards that might have come in contact with an infected patient.

“I do know that there is a big effort and push to make sure that nurses are trained in the local hospital system,” he said.

In the community, he said, Ebola can survive on an inanimate object longer indoors than it can in the sun — even days.

He said to his knowledge no one in the Lord Fairfax District has been infected by Ebola.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises washing hands before, during and after preparing food; before eating food; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using a toilet; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage.

Respiratory etiquette advises covering a sneeze with a tissue and then washing hands thoroughly, Wonsetler said.

Despite popular belief, Robinson said restroom hand dryers won’t re-contaminate clean hands. But a water faucet will, so he recommended using a clean paper towel to touch surfaces that could re-contaminate hands.

As for hand sanitizer, he doesn’t recommend it. “On a scale of one to 10, I would give an FDA-approved sanitizer a one,” he said.

Devine said it’s OK to use when soap and water are not available.

It’s less useful if visible dirt is present on hands, and it won’t work against norovirus, but if used properly, he said, it will work against almost anything else and is very effective against influenza.

“It will still sanitize,” he said.

“Everybody is concerned about Ebola,” he said, but “we’ll see far more deaths this year from influenza than we will from Ebola.”

Hand washing is the best defense against the flu, gastrointestinal illnesses, the common cold and Ebola, he said.

“We recommend it on general principals,” he said. “It has been shown to reduce the instances of disease.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com