Hand washing is a practice taught right from childhood at schools and home before eating or after play. Have you ever wondered why is it so important?
It is a well known fact that we share this planet with a variety of organisms from the size of blue whale to a tiny fruit fly. However, there is a world of microorganisms around us that is not seen by the naked eye. Thanks to the advancements in science and microscopy, we are able to visualize the world of micro organisms now. They are omnipresent- living in air, water, soil and even inside u and can be both useful and harmful for us.
Recently, a micro-organisms laden hand print created a stir on the internet and became viral. It depicted a petriplate showing the growth of micro organisms from the hand print of an 8-year old boy- son of Tasha Sturm, a lab technician by profession at Cabrillo College , taken after playing outdoors.
The hand laden with micro-organisms was gently pressed on to a petriplate, supplemented with nutritious agar and tryptic soy. Three days later, after incubation at body temperature- a colourful microbial imprint of her son’s hand developed on the petriplate. This experiment showed how omnipresent microbes are. Some of the microbes growing on them were identified as Bacillus sp, Staphylococcus sp. and Serratia sp. or Micrococcus sp., by her which she says are “pretty normal flora”.
Thanks to our immune system, inspite of constant encounters with such microbes, we are able to live a healthy life. However, proper hygiene practices like washing hands regularly could further enable our body to fight against these microbes.
Infact, a recent study by a group in Ethiopia has suggested that encouraging hand washing can slash the prevalence of worm infections in children. Intestinal worms are common in areas with poor sanitation and affects more than a billion people causing diarrhoea, anaemia, stunted growth, malnutrition and learning problems. A six month trial which was published in PLOS Medicine, found that regularly cleaning the hands with soap reduced new infections by intestinal parasites by 68%, while weekly nail clipping reduced such infections by 49%.
The lead author of the study, Mahmud Abdulkader Mahmud, a researcher at Mekelle University in Ethiopia says the results are important because of the prevalence of worm infections in the country.
The researchers split school-aged children into four treatment groups. One group received weekly nail clipping, one received soap and regular reminders to wash their hands, one received both treatments and a control group received neither intervention. Over 73% of the children had pre-existing intestinal infections, which were treated before the study commenced.
Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.41.25 am There has been ample evidence about the beneficial effects of hand washing with soap, in reducing the risk of infectious diseases. This study showed that even occasional hand washing reduced parasite infections among the Ethiopian children (see chart).
The authors want to stress on the fact that, few studies have tested the costs and health benefits of hygiene promotion. They claim that, their data show that it is much cheaper to deliver the benefits of hygiene this way than by building latrines or supplying clean water.
“When World Bank economists calculated the data,” he says, “[they found] the most cost-effective of all against high-burden diseases was handwashing with soap.”
Mahmud says his research highlights the importance of hand hygiene in WASH, a set of UN and other international programmes focusing on improving water, sanitation and hygiene. “We believe that these programmes should prioritise handwashing and nail clipping,” he says.
Published: June 11, 2015. By Prasanna Kumar
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