The best health protection measure: wash your hands. You do not believe it?


I am sure that when reading the title most or, rather, all readers will say that it is obvious, that yes, they believe it. If we weren’t entirely clear, during this COVID-19 pandemic the media have had enough of recommending that we wash our hands often and have told us how to do it – because it’s not about chap-chap, a little bit of Soap and water and voila — and even the least convinced have. But this has not always been the case. It took a lot for us to believe it. Let me tell you a little story.

In 1818, in Tabán, a neighborhood of Budapest, the doctor Ignaz Semmelweis was born, who, although as a young man he became interested in law studies, later – we do not know why, or I do not know – he abandoned the law and began to study medicine. In the course of her training she went to Vienna, and it was in this city that she secured a position as associate professor and chief resident of the Vienna General Hospital Maternity Clinic. Like a good scientist, Ignaz Semmelweis observed what happened to the women in labor who attended the first clinic of the Hospital and took notes. It was found that postpartum mortality from puerperal fever (that is, from infection) was higher in the first clinic, attended by young doctors, than in the second, attended by midwives. And he wondered why. His colleagues attributed it to chance, because the midwives had more experience —perhaps they did— since the pregnant women with the highest risk went to the first clinic. Consider that the mortality as a result of this infection in the postpartum among women who gave birth was 10 to 15%. But something happened.

Ignaz’s medical friend, Jakob, who performed many autopsies on women who had died from this fever, had the misfortune of injuring himself with a scalpel while performing one. She died a few days later with a clinical picture very similar to that of women who died due to puerperal fever. We insist: Ignaz was a good scientist. He tried to link what he observed in the clinic to his friend’s accident and suggested that, before assisting in a delivery, doctors carefully wash their hands, not simply rub them with a chlorine solution. Said and done. He observed that mortality from puerperal fever was reduced by 90%. He attributed it to hand cleaning and thought that many doctors treated pregnant women when they returned from the autopsy room with contaminated and dirty hands,

They did not pay any attention to him. They even called him crazy because of his despair. He was very hurt and depressed. They put him in an asylum. He wanted to escape from him, convinced that he had been imprisoned for his ideas. The asylum guards beat him, injured him and locked him in a cell. He died after a few days (year 1865) of an infection caused by the wounds that the guards had made him.

A few years later, in Paris, Louis Pasteur elaborated the theory of germs, the basis of the infectious process, and Ignaz Semmelweis’ recommendation to wash hands was universally recognized. No one else has ever questioned the importance of hand washing — not just obstetricians and surgeons before medical interventions, but all of us — to kill germs that live on our skin, nails, and hands. Another day I’ll explain why. In the meantime, don’t forget to wash your hands.


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