Can You Wash Away H1N1?
Washing Your Hands Can Help!
ONE OF the most powerful weapons against the new H1N1 (“Swine”) virus is summed up in a three-word phrase you first heard from your mother: wash your hands!
Tara Parker-Pope’s article in the New York Times gets into the science of clean hands. The statistics are revealing, one of the most graphic done at the University of California, Berkeley, where researchers videotaped students and determined that, on average, the students touched their eyes, noses and lips 47 times during a three-hour period. Once every four minutes.
Hand-to-face contact has a surprisingly negative impact on health. Germs can enter the body through breaks in the skin or through the membranes of the mouth, nose, and surprisingly vulnerable, the eyes.
Using mathematical models, Dr. Nicas (a professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley) and colleagues estimated that in homes, schools and dorms, hand-to-face contact appears to account for about one-third of the risk of flu infection, according to a report this month in the journal Risk Analysis.
Regular soap and water and alcohol-based hand sanitizers are both effective in eliminating the H1N1 virus from hands. In February, researchers in Australia coated the hands of 20 volunteers with copious amounts of a seasonal H1N1 flu virus. The concentration of virus was equivalent to the amount that would occur when an infected person used a hand to wipe a runny nose.
When test subjects whose hands were coated with H1N1 did not wash them, large amounts of live virus remained even after an hour, but using soap and water or a sanitizer virtually eliminated the presence of the virus.
Frequent hand washing will not eliminate risk. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, a bystander might be splattered by large droplets or may inhale airborne particles. Now matter how often you wash your hands, it won’t help if you’re sneezed on. In a recent Harvard study of hand sanitizer use in schools, hand hygiene practices lowered risk for gastrointestinal illness but not upper respiratory infections.
Nonetheless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with other health organizations around the world, urge frequent hand washing with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
And if that irresistible urge to cough or sneeze overtakes you, do it into the crook of your elbow, not your bare hands… otherwise you’ll need to wash them again before touching yourself, or anybody else.