‘The Saviour of the Mothers’ in times of Covid-19: A Brief History of Hand-Washing

March 24, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Vanita Suneja of WaterAid

Covid-19 is currently   occupying our collective mind space.  Apart from avoiding mass gatherings, the foremost message given through public media and health advisories across the world is on hand hygiene. We are being been advised to clean our hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water or with alcohol-based sanitizer.

Hand washing is critical when one has used public transport such as a bus, metro or train; or been to public places such as offices, factories, malls or parks. Hand washing is critical after every cough or sneeze. It is also important before preparing food or eating as well as after toilet use or touching animals. 

Health care providers need to wash hands before and after taking care of the unwell.  

The history of health and hygiene has a poignant story behind hand washing as prevention..   And it is important to remember it in the times of Covid-19.

In the 19th century, a Hungarian Physicist named Ignaz Semmelweis pointed out that one of the key reasons for new mothers dying in the maternal wards was that the doctors were carrying germs on their hands, while going from one patient to another. If handwashing was done by Doctors before attending a patient or between two patients, maternal mortality could be drastically curtailed. 

But no-one listened to Semmelweiss during his lifetime, when he was treated as a mad person. His contemporary doctors were offended by the suggestion of hand washing. Hand hygiene was considered too naïve and unscientific to be a leading cause of the mother’s death.  

Eventually, Semmelweis won recognition many years after his death and is now referred as the “Saviour of mothers”, a pioneer of antiseptic theory. Handwashing and hygiene were gradually accepted as key clinical preventive practices for infection prevention and control (IPC) .  It was much later, years after Semmelweis’s death, that Louis Pasteur confirmed the ‘germ theory’ of disease and Joseph Lister (based on microbiological research) showcased and practised operations based on hygienic methods

That Mothers Might Live, a movie based on Semmelweis’s struggle for cleanliness and handwashing, won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1938.

Even after it was established beyond doubt that hands can carry germs and therefore need to be washed properly,  a sort of apathy persists towards a simple thing like hand-washing.       

Globally, one out of six (16%) health care facilities  lack  hygiene services, i.e., they do not have hand washing  facilities with soap and water at points of care, as well as near toilets, according to a  report WASH in Health Care Facilities, by WHO and UNICEF.

Unfortunately, correct hand washing by people at critical points of contact and after specific activities is still lacking as a part of key behaviour practices.

Proper hand washing at crucial points is an easy yet sure-fire deterrent in preventing the spread of coronavirus.   It is important that apart from the information, facilities to wash hands, water, soap are easily accessible and available to all, including the urban poor in slums or people living in the hinterlands.

And here’s more on norm changes around hand washing from Oxfam’s Thomas Dunmore-Rodriguez