10 statistics that’ll change how you think of hand hygiene

In the U.S. every year, about 1.7 million people get sick during their stay in hospital (known as healthcare acquired infections or HAIs). Of these, about 98,000 die — about one in 17 — as a result of that infection. Proper hand hygiene may prevent as much as 50% of those infections.

It saves money too. Implementing basic hand hygiene protocols in healthcare settings generate savings that work out, on average, to 17 times their cost.

And we are lucky to be able to do it. As of 2019, 1.8 billion people around the world are reliant on healthcare facilities that lack basic water service which, of course, includes adequate hand washing facilities at the point of care, drastically increasing the likelihood of contracting an HAI.

In fact, only 27% of people in the world’s least developed countries have access to adequate soap and water.

Every year, about 1.4 million people, including 400,000 children under the age of five, die as a result of infections attributable to inadequate hand washing.

Yet, in countries like Canada, adherence to hand washing protocols is often “unacceptably poor.” One study found that some healthcare practitioners only wash their hands 5% of the time.

Outside of hospitals it’s less alarming but still not great. Less than 10% of people wash their hands before they eat.

Proper hand hygiene reduces the risk of food-borne illness, and it’s also been shown to reduce the likelihood of contracting certain respiratory diseases by as much as 44%.

Most people understand this, as evidenced by the exorbitant prices some were willing to pay for hand sanitizer during the height of the COVID pandemic. At one point, a 10 pack of Purell (300ml) on Amazon in the U.K. was listed for over $600 CAD.

Usually, however, hand sanitizer is a cheap and effective way to supplement regular hand washing. According to the CDC, the use of alcohol-based sanitizers in U.S. elementary school classrooms has been shown to reduce absenteeism due to illness by 20%.

But far more impressive than that, the advent of hand washing has changed modern life.

Life expectancy in the world’s most developed countries has doubled — about 40 to over 80 — since the year 1850. That is also widely recognized as the year hand washing was first popularized.

Scientists will warn you that correlation is not causation; there have been plenty of other very important advancements during that time to help extend life expectancy. But few have been as singularly effective in warding off such a wide range of disease as soap and water.

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