How Handwashing Saved the World

When you think about groundbreaking medical advances, you probably think about things like the polio vaccine, or the discovery of penicillin. Maybe you think about the researchers frantically seeking a cure for cancer, or even of explorers and biochemists looking to the rainforest or deep oceans for naturally-occurring substances that can stave off debilitating diseases. Looking throughout history, however, one thing becomes very clear: basic hygiene has saved millions of lives.

How Handwashing Saved the World
Hand washing medical procedure step by step. Isolated on white background.

We live in an unusual time in history. Visitors from the past would be entirely surprised by our apparent obsession with cleanliness. We bathe every day, wash our hands constantly, and seldom wear a garment more than once without washing it. We take this for granted, yet through most of history cleaning was a laborious undertaking. People seldom bathed, and washing hands after using the facilities (such as they were) or before cooking was something seldom thought of. Doctors rarely even washed their hands before examining patients. As a result, disease was easily spread from person to person through touch. Not only did germs pass around, but dirt or other contamination could get into open wounds or affect people with compromised immune systems, leading to far more sicknesses and deaths that could have been avoidable.

Though some medical practitioners caught on over the years that improved sanitation led to healthier outcomes, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that this idea started circulating among doctors. Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis is often credited with the first study showing a decrease in “childbed fever” among the patients of doctors who washed their hands first.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America in the mid-1800s, the population in the cities soared as whole communities uprooted themselves and went to work in factories. Public sanitation in cities hadn’t changed much since the Middle Ages and sewage still often ran into the streets, sometimes even polluting the water sources. Rural areas weren’t exempt, as many people took care of their own and their families health needs with very little training and the existence of germs was not well known.  As plumbing advances and infrastructure improvements were made, instances of highly communicable diseases like cholera diminished. Today, cities in many developing nations suffer similar problems. The modern challenge is to bring advances in infrastructure and sanitation that could save millions of lives.

Given the long history of poor sanitation and the problems caused by improper care, you can see the need to maintain safe guidelines at all times. Places like Las Vegas Medical Store deal with a variety of infection control products that can help stop the spread of dangerous diseases. Though some of the sanitary procedures can seem monotonous, they are crucially important. There is a very good reason that medical professions are drilled endlessly to change their gloves, wash their hands, discard used implements, and change bed covers constantly. So the next time you observe a doctor, nurse, or technician automatically going through these motions, take a minute to think about their many forbears who pioneered the idea of hygienic medical care.

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