Ottawa

Never mind COVID-19, half of you aren't even washing your hands after going to the bathroom

The coronavirus outbreak may have spurred some of us to wash our hands with greater diligence, but a Canadian microbiologist argues too few of us have been making a habit of it.

Potential pandemic or not, it's time to get into the habit of handwashing, noted microbiologist says

A timely reminder: Research shows too few of us are making handwashing a habit. (Ruth Zowdu/CBC)

The coronavirus outbreak may have spurred some of us to wash our hands with greater diligence, but a Canadian microbiologist argues too few of us have been making a habit of it.

"The reality is that a minority of the population choose to wash their hands on a regular basis," said Jason Tetro, author of The Germ Code and The Germ Files.

According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, about 80 percent of common infections are spread by hand. While Tetro admits there's greater attention being paid to washing them to prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19, it's a custom that could likely fall by the wayside once those fears subside.

"The problem is getting people to continue [washing their hands] after the virus, or the threat, has gone away," he said.

According to a recent report in the International Journal of Epidemiology, only about 51 per cent of people in high-income countries with greater access to handwashing facilities wash their hands with soap after "potential fecal contact." In other words, half of us aren't scrubbing our hands after going Number 2.

That nauseating statistic doesn't surprise Tetro.

"When you start looking at how burdensome it is to wash your hands, how much time it takes, you kind of start putting that off ... especially if you're very busy," he said. "We live in a world where we're too busy doing something else that we're not focusing on our health."

WATCH: Microbiologist explains why so few people wash their hands properly

Microbiologist Jason Tetro explains why only “a minority” of people choose to wash their hands on a regular basis. 1:44

'It's human nature'

Getting people to practise proper hand washing-techniques can be a challenge at the best of times, even in settings where it's critical, like the health-care industry, Tetro said.

"You may actually get a huge amount of people washing their hands during a training session or an observation period, but then it will gradually come back down. It's human nature," he said.

A 2014 audit conducted by the Canadian Patient Safety Institute found about 78 per cent of health-care workers cleaned their hands. 

"We tend to forget the things that maybe are most important for our health, but perhaps are more burdensome on our lifestyle," Tetro said.

Microbiologist Jason Tetro says although COVID-19 has inspired more people to wash their hands properly, that will likely change once the virus is no longer in the headlines. (CBC)

Pointing the way

A study published in 2018 examined whether certain cues might help nudge some people toward better hand hygiene in the bathroom.

Researchers found that while 40 per cent of male subjects and 66 per cent of females washed their hands, the rate of males nudged up to 43 per cent when researchers placed reminders with smiley faces on bathroom mirrors. (Female subjects were apparently unmoved by the prompts.)

Your hygiene is important, no matter what time of year it is and whether or not we have a potential pandemic virus.- Jason Tetro

When red arrows were placed on the floor to point the way from toilet stalls and urinals to sinks, handwashing rates rose again to 46 per cent among males and 76 per cent among females.

Tetro said these types of tactics can be helpful, but ultimately people will need to change their mindset and make handwashing a habit on their own.

"Every time we end up with one of these potential pandemic viruses ... we always tend to come back to hygiene as being the most important factor in preventing spread. The fact of the matter is, your hygiene is important, no matter what time of year it is and whether or not we have a potential pandemic virus."

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