Handwashing helped slash rates of  infection of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and C. difficile in hospitals, British researchers have found.

After the "Cleanyourhands" campaign rolled out at hospitals in England and Wales between 2004 and 2008, infection rates for the antibiotic-resistant strains fell. The bacterial infections claim thousands of lives a year in Europe, Canada and the U.S., according to the World Health Organization.

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The amount of soap and sanitizer purchased by hospitals was used to judge the effectiveness of a handwashing campaign for reducing infection rates. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

As part of the campaign, alcohol hand rub was provided at bedsides, posters were distributed to remind healthcare workers to clean their hands and they received regular checks on compliance.

"The study suggests that national infection control interventions, including a hand hygiene campaign, undertaken in the context of a high profile political drive, can successfully reduce selected healthcare associated infections," lead author Dr. Sheldon Stone of the University College London Medical School and his co-authors concluded in this week’s issue of the British Medical Journal.

The researchers looked at how much soap and sanitizer that hospitals bought every four months from 2005 to 2009, as well as the number of infections.

Rates fell for MRSA fell from 1.88 cases per 10,000 bed days to 0.91 per 10,000 bed days. A bed day counts as one patient in a bed for one day.

C. difficile rates dropped from 16.75 per 10,000 bed days to 9.34.

Soap is thought to work better for reducing C. difficile infections. The bacterial spores can linger on surfaces like toilet seats and doorknobs for weeks if not properly disinfected.

The findings could offer a model for other countries to adopt or adapt, the team said.

On Saturday, the World Health Organization celebrates its Save Lives: Clean Your Hands campaign for facilities that have adopted plans to improve hand hygiene like the UK initiative.