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National Health Observances

Brief History on National Handwashing Awareness Week

In short, washing hands saves lives.

If you had given birth or been born in 1847 in an overcrowded hospital in Vienna, Austria, you’d probably agree. The infant mortality rate was 26 percent at the time, and the average life expectancy was less than 40 years.

A young Viennese physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, was recently appointed as house officer for two Viennese obstetric clinics. He noticed that the clinic in which doctors hurried straight to the birthing room from the autopsy room — where puerperal fever was a frequent, fatal visitor — had a very high infant mortality rate of 16 percent compared to 7 percent at the other clinic.

Semmelweis supposed that “cadaverous particles” might be causing the significant infant mortality rate. He suggested that doctors scrub their hands with a chlorinated lime solution before leaving the autopsy room to kill the deadly particles. After practices were implemented, the mortality rate at the clinic immediately fell to 3 percent.

It was decades before the lifesaving practice of handwashing would be commonly accepted, but eventually it was. Handwashing could be indirectly instrumental to your very existence!

National Handwashing Awareness week, celebrated this week, keeps the spotlight on the importance of this basic disease prevention method.