Ignaz Semmelweis, everyone!

It’s time for your monthly Covid column, and Ignaz Semmelweis’s guest is not a Louis-Lousseau holiday greeting (yet), but a true healthcare hero.

Sameways! Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whether you’re still worried about Covid, for any number of reasons, or develop a blank, thousand-yard view when you have to think about it, I hope you still find value in this quick trip through history.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor in the mid-1800s, and he noticed a problem in the maternity ward of his teaching hospital. Between 1840 and 1846, the maternal mortality rate for the midwives’ class was 36 per 1000 births, while the mortality rate for the doctors’ class was 98 per 1000 births.

I resist making the easy doctor joke to continue the story: Semmelweis finds out that doctors sometimes deliver babies after performing autopsies. After implementing a hand-washing policy (generally, not you, after an autopsy), the death rate for doctors dropped to the same level as midwives.

Medical professionals kicked this idea back and forth for a while before finally deciding that regular hand washing was a good idea and establishing it as the norm…a hundred years later in the 1980s!

This is why I meet people who completely reject covid protocols like masks, vaccinations and ventilation. In fact, if you commit to washing your hands regularly, you will be taking the most important step to avoid getting sick in most cases. Unfortunately, most of us are terrible about hand hygiene.

Many groups have looked at hand hygiene through surveys and observations. Areas that should have the highest compliance standards for hand hygiene are “hands down” healthcare and food service. It is not offensive to ask your health care provider if they have washed their hands. What about when the dude makes your sandwich? If you ask that person, ask your doctor too.

A wise infection preventionist once said, “Imagine ketchup on everything you touch, and that will help you wash your hands more often.”

“But Michelle, why do I need to wash my hands?” Well, how do you think we get germs?

Why do some people always get a sore throat or cold during winter? Is it the cold weather? Going out without a coat for a minute? What about wet hair? Forgot to take your vitamin C?

No – colds are caused by viruses, not “exposure” to substances on wet or wet hair. The common cold (along with some other unsavory viruses) is spread through the nose and mouth of people with frequent and sudden urges to sneeze – just like the flu.

Some viruses remain viable on a surface for hours or days. It is recommended that we regularly wipe or clean “high touch” surfaces. Only high-touch areas – we touch them all the time – doorknobs, toilet handles, telephones, keyboards, fridge doors, light switches, tables, etc.

Viruses land on these surfaces or hang on the hands of those who carry them. If you wipe your nose, shake the hand of a colleague you haven’t seen in a while, then grab a cup of coffee from the break room, you’re both completely normal and germ-free.

During Infection Prevention Week (so fun!) I asked some people to “follow the germs” or count how many surfaces they touched for the first hour of work. Then I asked them to try to count how many times they touched their faces. There were some surprises. Some studies have shown 23 face touches per hour! Yikes – I’m glad I wear my goggles and mask a lot, because I’m more likely to get germs near my face – my eyes, nose or mouth.

You may not be able to train yourself not to touch your face – trust me, I’ve tried. So, the next best thing you can do is wash your hands regularly. This will not only keep your hands clean, but also keep germs away with the quality mask you inhale.

So what are some things that keep us from getting sick?

  • Number 1: Hand hygiene! Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water – or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer – before and after eating, after using the bathroom, after handling or cleaning an animal, child or other parasite, or another person. Sick, before preparing food, during and after eating, before touching your face, after blowing your nose, sneezing or sneezing, after being in public places, after touching dirt – so many possibilities!
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces (always read the manufacturer’s instructions for use on those cleaning products!).
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid close contact with sick people

If it took you a while to take preventive health measures, don’t feel bad – it took doctors over a century to finally wash their hands of it. But now you know, fall is a good time to start. Be safe and healthy!


Michelle Lewis-Lusso (she/her) is an infection prevention and control nurse at United India Health Services, serving 11,000+ clients and staff at their seven regional clinics. Michelle says to wash your hands and not pull out wet hair.

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