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Doesn't Anybody Wash Their Hands Anymore?

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WebMD Health News

Sept. 18, 2000 (Toronto) -- You forgot to wash your hands, didn't you? It's been only four years since the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) launched an intensive campaign aimed at getting people to wash their hands -- but already Americans have forgotten the lesson, according to a new study.

Nearly everybody -- more than nine of 10 people polled -- says they wash their hands after using a public bathroom. But spies placed in public facilities in five U.S. cities report that only two out of three people actually do so. A similar study conducted in 1996 -- before the ASM handwashing campaign -- yielded nearly identical results.

As funny as it seems to place spies in restrooms, the findings are no laughing matter. No new technology, drug or vaccine is capable of preventing more infections than the simple act of washing one's hands.

"Handwashing is of paramount public importance," says Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, director of the Hospital Infections Program at the CDC. "Washing hands is a major public health intervention to prevent disease -- it's cheap, it's easy, and it works." Gerberding presented the study here in Toronto Monday at an ASM gathering of infectious disease specialists from around the world.

The CDC says regular handwashing reduces the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Clean hands also would go a long way toward preventing the 79 million cases of food-related illnesses that occur each year in the U.S.

Joining Gerberding in a press conference to kick off the ASM's latest handwashing campaign was clinical microbiologist Judy Daly, PhD, a professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. "Fifteen seconds of hot water, soap, and rubbing your hands together is all it takes -- yet we are not making progress," Daly says. "The year 2000 data looks just like the 1996 data."

The study used discreet observers stationed in public restrooms at Navy Pier in Chicago, at a casino in New Orleans, at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, at Turner Field baseball stadium in Atlanta, and at Grand Central and Penn stations in New York City. Observation of nearly 8,000 people shows that fewer men than women wash their hands (58% vs. 75%).

City-by-city differences became apparent. After using public bathrooms, 83% of Chicago residents washed while only 49% of New Yorkers washed. Atlanta men were the worst group -- only 36% washed before leaving the restroom.

The difference between men and women holds up when people are asked whether they always wash their hands in the following situations:

  • After using the bathroom at home (90% of women vs. 81% of men)
  • After changing a diaper (86% of women vs. 70% of men)
  • Before handling or eating food (84% of women vs. 69% of men)
  • After petting a dog or cat (54% of women vs. 36% of men)
  • After coughing or sneezing (40% of women vs. 22% of men)
  • After handling money (28% of women vs. 12% of men)

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing