How to Fight Off the Next Pandemic or Common Cold

Whether fighting a global pandemic or the common cold, there is one simple action that can easily be overlooked and underestimated: proper hand hygiene. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it is the number one way to prevent the spread of disease and infection. Handwashing is a simple, yet effective, preventive tool to stay healthy and prevent the spread of germs.

As the United States is experiencing one of the worst flu outbreaks, the Director of the CDC, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, cites handwashing as the number one action you can take to protect yourself from getting the flu. Researchers estimate that if everyone washed their hands properly a million deaths each year could be prevented. Additionally, evidence shows that proper handwashing can prevent one in three diarrhea-related sicknesses and one in five respiratory infections (that includes the flu). Further, the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in elementary school classrooms was shown to reduce absenteeism due to illness by 19.8%.

On a global level, the importance of hand hygiene cannot be underestimated. In 2009 the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands campaign to create a global platform to educate on the importance of hand hygiene in the healthcare setting. In the 2014 Ebola outbreak, hand hygiene education played a crucial role in the WHO’s training of medical staff responding to the epidemic. The Ebola training included not only education on the importance of wearing protective gear, such as gloves, but also included detailed handwashing training. Today, in hospitals around the world the WHO continues to train and educate healthcare professionals on the critical role hand hygiene plays in the delivery of healthcare, in hopes of slowing or preventing the next pandemic.

What role can you play? Unwashed hands can transfer germs to everyday objects, like doorknobs and cell phones, and then to the hands of another person. Unknowingly, when we touch our face, these germs can enter the body through the mucous membranes in our eyes, nose, and mouth. You can reduce the number of germs on your hands by regular handwashing. The CDC recommends washing your hands: after using the bathroom; before, during, and after preparing food; before eating; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; and when your hands are visibly dirty.

How to wash? Wet your hands; apply soap; lather; scrub; rinse, and dry. Scrubbing is the most important step of the sequence; remember to scrub all the surfaces of your hands for at least 20 seconds. When you are unable to wash your hands with soap and water, hand sanitizer is a convenient alternative. Make sure to use an alcohol-based sanitizer that includes at least 60% alcohol. When using a hand sanitizer keep in mind the most commonly missed​ areas are the thumbs, fingertips and between the fingers.

Handwashing can save lives. It is essential to communicate how this basic yet powerful preventative tool can play a role in combatting the next pandemic and keeping you healthy today.

Katie Johnson is currently a first-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Johnson graduated from Valparaiso University with a degree in Nursing and Western Michigan University with a degree in Political Science. She is an active member of the Health Law Institute and will complete her law degree in 2020.