Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hygiene Today and the Infections of Tomorrow

Concerns that various infectious diseases are growing more and more immune to the antibacterial treatments that we have developed for them are growing among the medical community. As a result, it is more and more important to take precautionary and preventative measures when it comes to situations where you risk infection, as the overuse of antibiotics is what is contributing to the increasing immunity of infectious diseases against current treatments. Many of these preventative measures are, in fact, incredibly easy to undertake, but repeated reminding and education is important if they are to take hold and continue to be common practices!

Growing resistance to last-line antibiotics
by arnehaeger.
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One Hand Washes the Other 

Washing your hands before and after coming into contact with a potentially infectious material, whether it is feces, food, dirt, or bodily fluids, is a no-brainer, right? Yet many people fail to wash their hands, whether it is out of forgetfulness, ignorance, or just plain laziness. As a result, many diseases end up in your food, in your drink, and in your hand when you shake someone else’s hand. Still, the overwhelming frequency with which people wash their hands in the bathroom and in the kitchen saves most people from becoming infected with a wide variety of diseases. Did you know, however, that we were not always so clean?

Indeed, once upon a time washing your hands was not common practice among those most sterile of professionals, surgeons. In 1847, the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis observed that fatal childbed, or puerperal, fever occurred most often in women who were assisted by medical students, as opposed to those women who were assisted by midwives. After studying the problem, Semmelweis discovered that those medical students who had assisted with childbirth often did so after they had performed an autopsy on a patient who had died from sepsis of a bacterial origin, a fairly common way to go in those days. Obviously, having not washed their hands, that bacteria was passed on in the delicate process of childbirth, leading to the mother’s fever.

Semmelweis subsequently instituted a strict policy of hand washing with a chlorinated antiseptic solution intended to help relieve the problem. As a result, mortality rates dropped by 10 to 20-fold within 3 months of the hand washing policy’s institution, which proved that the transmission of disease could be vastly reduced simply by instituting the practice of washing your hands!

Water, Water, Everywhere 

Washing your hands means little if you aren’t doing so with clean water, however. Once upon a time, outbreaks of bacterial cholera led to frequent outbreaks in massive proportions, with thousands dead and more ill. At the time, people believed that the cause of cholera was poisonous gases from the sewers, open graves, and other areas where decay was common. John Snow, a medical doctor in the 19th century England, knew differently.

Snow had observed that cholera appeared to be spread through sewage-contaminated water. Specifically, he mapped an area near Broad Street in London, noticing that most cholera-related deaths occurred near a pump on that street – where residents frequently stopped to drink water. He removed the pump handle, and the spread of the disease seemed to be suddenly contained. In time, Snow’s findings became major contributions to our understanding of infectious diseases and the importance of clean drinking water.


Prevention is the Key

Of course, today, we’ve developed all kinds of technological advances that allow us to live in a relatively safe, hygienic world where we don’t have to worry about tuberculosis, cholera, the bubonic plague, and other diseases that once decimated whole populations for hundreds of years. Instead, we are our own worst enemy, sometimes using antibiotics unnecessarily and increasing the resistance of some diseases against those antibiotics.

Precautionary measures like gloves and masks when working with food, drink, or potentially infectious materials, along with good hygienic habits like hand-washing, are far more effective when it comes to preventing infection, as opposed to waiting until you are infected and only then bombarding yourself with treatment after treatment of antibiotics. Even worse is the threat of a virus for which we have no cure; no antibiotic can help you then, which is why vaccination is so important. Prevention, of course, is still the best defense anyone has, and that means good habits and good equipment!