The role of good hand hygiene in tackling drug-resistant infections

Written by
Longitude team

The urgent need to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance is being addressed by many groups worldwide. Here at the Longitude Prize, we’re looking for a revolutionary point-of-care test to diagnose infections quickly and accurately, helping to curb the overuse of antibiotics that fuels drug resistance. Meanwhile, innovators around the globe are working on numerous projects to stop infections from spreading in the first place, whether through creating new vaccines or developing surfaces that superbugs can’t attach to.  

But you don’t have to be an engineer or a microbiologist to play your part in tackling this problem: we can all help slow the spread of resistance through good hand hygiene, and healthcare workers in particular have a crucial role to play. 

That’s the message behind this year’s World Hand Hygiene Day. The global campaign, which takes place on 5 May each year, seeks to raise awareness of the importance of good hand hygiene in healthcare. This year’s campaign is all about reducing antibiotic resistance, highlighting the vital role effective handwashing can play in preventing the spread of drug-resistant infections and helping to conserve our antibiotics.

Preventing infections in healthcare settings

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in 10 patients will get an infection while receiving care. For surgical care this number is even higher - up to 32% of patients will contract a post-operative infection and up to 51% of these infections are resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them.  

“Healthcare-associated infections [HAIs] are one of the most frequent adverse events in healthcare delivery and are a major public health problem that affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide,” says Dr. Mahmoud Fikri, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

“HAIs cause harm and suffering [that’s] easily avoided. They also result in additional financial burden and sometimes even long-term disabilities or death.”

According to WHO, adequate hand hygiene reduces the risk of HAIs and has the potential to save eight million lives a year in hospitals alone. As well as targeting healthcare workers, this year’s campaign also seeks to encourage policymakers and healthcare facilities to strengthen infection prevention and control programmes based on WHO guidelines, and to make good hand hygiene a national policy priority. 

Of course, raising awareness of the importance of hand hygiene is only part of the solution. Even when awareness and understanding exists, as is often the case in healthcare settings, time-constrained schedules and fast-paced demands can sometimes mean basic hygiene procedures are foregone. Outside the hospital, and around the world, access to water and soap can also be very limited, requiring much more extensive infrastructural changes. 

We explored some of the ways companies and innovators are working to promote effective handwashing practices in this post on innovations in hand hygiene.  

What does good hand hygiene look like? 

While WHO’s campaign is focused on health workers, good hand hygiene is something we can all practise to prevent illness, infections and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). 

“For many people, handwashing is a simple task, part of everyday routine, but we must remember it is one of our best defences against illness, and, importantly, in helping to prevent the spread of infection and antimicrobial resistance,” says Joanne Bosanquet, Deputy Chief Nurse for Public Health England.

There are obvious times that call for handwashing, like after using the toilet, before cooking, and before eating. Washing with soap is also essential to prevent the spread of germs.

You can find more information on good hand hygiene and how we should wash our hands to prevent the spread of infection and AMR in our post on hand hygiene innovations.

Image by UNAMID