National spotlight on handwashing

Keeping kids safe from the seasonal and H1N1 flu strains has been on parents’ minds for months. But with the hectic holiday schedule upon us-complete with germ-spreading activities like parties, shopping and travel-routine handwashing may have slipped our minds a bit.

Good thing Dec. 6 begins National Handwashing Awareness week. Though it almost sounds too simple to be effective, washing hands regularly really does prevent people from getting sick.

That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends handwashing as the most important way to prevent the flu. If soap and water aren’t available, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Several recent studies have confirmed handwashing’s effectiveness, including one conducted in Australia and published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases Journal.

The hands of 20 (vaccinated) volunteers were coated with the H1N1 flu virus. When the volunteers did not wash their hands, the virus remained on their hands even after an hour. But when they washed their hands, the virus was essentially eliminated. Hand sanitizer did work, but the study found soap and water to be the most effective option.

But what makes handwashing even more effective is refraining from touching your eyes, nose and mouth. To prove it, scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, watched college students who were reading or using their computers, according to a New York Times article.

The researchers documented every time the students touched their eyes, nose or mouth-the mucous membranes there are the easiest entry points for germs. After three hours of observation, the students touched their faces an average of 47 times, or about once every four minutes. Now, imagine how many times preschoolers’ fingers are in their noses or mouths.

To help younger children remember handwashing tips, a physician in Ohio designed an educational program called Henry the Hand. You can print his posters here.

Using a giant smiling yellow hand, catchy songs and bright posters, Dr. William Sawyer hopes to remind kids to wash hands before eating, to never cough or sneeze into your hand (use the crook of your elbow instead) and to never touch the “T-zone” of your face (otherwise known as the eyes, nose and mouth)

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