Opinion: Dirty phones and dirtier hands

POSTED: 10/17/11 11:52 AM

Ughh, don’t read this before breakfast. Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that one out of every six cell phones has traces of urine and feces on it, stuff that belongs in the bathroom or, to be more specific, in the toilet.
The British broadcaster BBC reported this last week, based on a report from the University of London and the School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Researchers took 400 samples from mobile phones and hands in twelve British cities. They published their results on the Global Day for Washing Hands. We honestly did not know that such a day existed, and we suspect that most people in St. Maarten missed this lofty occasion, because in took place last Saturday.
The Dutch press agency ANP, always willing to help its readers, pointed out for good measure that the Global Day for Washing Hands aims to focus the attention on the importance of good personal hygiene.
One researcher said that cell phones in the north of the country were more often dirty than cell phones in the south. His explanation maybe bacteria survive better in cold and wet environments. Or maybe people in the north wash their hands less often.
In St. Maarten washing hands is enormously popular, but, as far as we have been able to establish, only in one particular sense. People in St. Maarten love to wash their hands in innocence. We know – that is a literal translation of a Dutch expression. Another way of saying the same thing is that people don’t like to get their hands dirty – but that is figurative.
Washing hands has been a pain in the neck to many people. Why this is so beats us, but not washing hands has a long history.
Let’s pick it up in the 1840’s, more than 170 years ago. It was no fun bearing a child at that time, because per 100,000 births, more than 450 mothers died. These days, there are just 9 deaths per 100,000 births in industrialized countries.
In the 1840s, women would catch puerperal fever shortly after giving birth and die. This occurred in the most respectable hospitals in Europe at the time, in London, Paris, Dresden, and elsewhere – even at the finest hospital of all, the General Hospital in Vienna. In 1847, 1 in every six births resulted in the mother’s death in Vienna.
That’s when a Hungarian born doctor named Ignatz Semmelweis started thinking about this disastrous situation. He soon discovered that the death rate in the ward where mothers were attended to by male doctors was much higher, than the death rate in a second ward, where midwives and female trainees did the honors.
Semmelweis stubbornly continued to do his detective work in the hospital until he discovered what was going on. Doctors routinely went from the autopsy room, where they trained medical students in the finer points of the human anatomy, to the maternity ward to deliver a baby.
Once Semmelweis made the doctors wash their hands in a chlorinated solution, the death rate in the maternity ward fell to barely 1 percent.
One would think that this is reason enough for doctors all over the world to become fanatics in the field of washing hands. But doctors outside of Vienna ignored Semmelweis’ finding and even ridiculed him. Okay, we hear you – that was in 1847, or maybe in 1850.
These days doctors know better. Right?
Sorry: wrong. Recent studies have shown that hospital personnel wash or disinfect their hands in fewer than half then instances they should. We’re not making this up; we took this from Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book Superfreakonomics.
In 1999, which is a lot closer to the present than 1850, the report Human from the Institute of Medicine estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year because of preventable hospital errors. And what is one of the leading errors? Wound infection.
And what is the best way to prevent wound infection? Getting doctors to wash their hands more frequently.
But that’s easier said than done. Levitt and Dubner also found proof that doctors are habitual liars. A study in an Australian children’s hospital, where doctors were asked to report their hand-washing habits, showed that they washed their hands in 73 percent of the situations where they ought to do this. Not bad huh?
What the doctors did not know that their nurses were spying on them. And they reported that in reality, the doctors washed their hands only in 9 percent of the situations where they should have done this.
The lesson from this all? Next time you are in a hospital, or at the doctor, you may just ask before the medicine man touches you: doctor, did you wash your hands?

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