The best way to avoid disease? America's microbiologists say it's a no-brainer: Just wash your hands.
"Taking 15 seconds with regular soap and water can do a lot to stop disease," says Judy Daly, secretary of the American Society for Microbiology, which is launching a campaign to get people to clean up.
The society calls hand-washing "the best public defense against the spread of both common and rare, even life-threatening diseases such as SARS, and against such gastrointestinal infections as Norwalk virus, which have recently plagued the cruise industry."
Daly, a microbiologist at the University of Utah, says spending those 15 seconds washing your hands with soap and water is particularly important after using the toilet, handling money or petting an animal.
That should be obvious to most adults, but ASM researchers found that many of us say we wash our hands much more often than we do.
The latest telephone ASM survey, conducted with 1,000 persons in August, found that 95 percent said they washed their hands after using the bathroom, though only 77 percent said they did so after changing a diaper.
Knowing from past experience that Americans lie about such things, the society didn't stop there. It sent spies into the public restrooms of six major airports.
After observing 7,541 persons, they found that 26 percent of men and 17 percent of women didn't wash their hands after using the facilities.
The most fastidious place, by far, was Toronto, where 96 percent washed their hands. The city, which had experienced a SARS outbreak, apparently has taken seriously the warnings of health experts.
In all places but one, women were considerably cleaner than men, the survey found. The exception was San Francisco, where 80 percent of men washed their hands but only 59 percent of women did so.
The good news, the society found, is that Americans seem to be improving. In the current survey, 78 percent of all men and women washed their hands, compared with 67 percent in a similar survey in 2000 and 68 percent in 1996.
The key to transmitting many diseases is what experts call "the fecal-oral" syndrome. That's particularly true of flulike diseases that have spread aboard cruise ships.
The basic scenario goes like this: People don't wash hands and leave germs on bathroom doorknobs, where they're picked up by others who then go off to the buffet line, to eat with their just-contaminated hands.
"That's hitting the nail on the head," says Daly. "With fecal-oral, the hands are the agent of distribution. The phrase might not be pretty, but it's certainly descriptive.
"We just hope that people begin to get the message."
STAYING CLEAN SCENARIOS:
Two key situations in the cleanliness campaign:
You've just washed your hands in the workplace bathroom and are headed back to your desk. What's the first thing you do? Open the bathroom door. Isn't it possible that your clean hands will be touching germs left by colleagues who didn't wash theirs?
"Absolutely right," says Judy Daly of the American Society for Microbiology. "That's why many health care professionals keep hold of the paper towel they used to dry their hands and use it to open the door before discarding it."
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You go to the company cafeteria to get a morning bagel. You pay with a $5 bill, get change, put the money in your pocket and go back to your desk to eat the bagel with your hands. Anything wrong with that?
"Things could live for quite a while on dirty money," Daly says. "If you're going to eat with your hands, you need to wash them after handling money."
On the Web
For more information on the importance of hand-washing, go to www.washup.org, operated by the American Society for Microbiology.