Targeted hand hygiene, not just sanitising, key to killing germs

Good hand hygiene can  make a difference in health.
Good hand hygiene can make a difference in health. PHOTO: ST FILE

Q & A

Q Do hand sanitisers really cut down on illness?

A The short answer is no one knows, because no one has studied whether hand sanitisers have reduced the number of infectious diseases among the public at large.

On a personal level, good hand hygiene can clearly make a difference in health. A 2008 study in The American Journal Of Public Health concluded that improvements in hand hygiene, regardless of how the participants cleaned their hands, cut gastrointestinal diseases by 31 per cent and respiratory infections by 21 per cent.

The key to stopping disease is breaking the chain that allows pathogens to be transmitted from person to person. Either hand washing or sanitising can do that.

Ms Sally Bloomfield, an expert in hand hygiene and an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said she always carries hand sanitiser with her when she travels.

"London airport bathrooms are usually fine because they are well designed to make sure we wash our hands properly - and dry them properly," she said, but some train loos leave something to be desired.

Grocery carts can be particularly risky points of transmission. Someone grabbing chicken or meat can leak the juices onto a cart and their hands, and then they continue to push the cart around, transmitting pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli onto the handle.

The next person who handles the cart, or the next child who sits in the cart, can then pick up the bugs.

"If you can wipe down the handlebars on the shopping cart with an alcohol-containing preparation, that's probably a good idea," said Dr Cody Meissner from Tufts Medical Centre in Boston.

That said, Dr Meissner and others cautioned against germophobia. Every surface around us is coated in bacteria and other microbes, the vast majority of which are neutral or beneficial, said Ms Liz Scott, chairman of the department of public health at Simmons College in Boston.

"We really need to target our hygiene practices," she said, and instead focus on likely chains of transmission. That means washing your hands when you get back from the grocery store, public transit or any other public place, said Ms Scott, who admits to avoiding handshakes whenever possible, especially during flu season.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2017, with the headline 'Targeted hand hygiene, not just sanitising, key to killing germs'. Print Edition | Subscribe