No Dirty Hands, please…. !
By Maxwell Pereira
mfjpkamath@gmail.com

Talk about fads! And of public health awareness! The latest in the line is a survey cum study commissioned by the American Society of Microbiologists (ASM) on people’s behaviour after a visit to washrooms or public toilets. “Most people say they wash their hands after using the bathroom, but many of them are not telling the truth” – the study suggested. More importantly, the survey found that women were more diligent than men: 90 percent washed their hands, compared with only 75 percent of the men.

In a nationwide poll conducted this year in the USA between Aug.19 to Aug.23 by Harris Interactive, 1013 adults were interviewed about their hand washing habits after a visit to the toilet. Then observers were sent into public restrooms to see what actually happened. A female TV anchor presenting this report on the channel I watched, quipped she couldn’t help wondering what exactly the observers were observing, and how, in public toilets!

But coming to the point, ninety-one percent of adults had claimed in the poll that they washed their hands after using a public restroom. But of the 6,336 adults whose behaviour was observed, only 82 percent actually did so. People were not as conscientious as they say they were, the researchers demonstrated, comparing answers given in the telephone poll to observed behaviour.

The study has not been able to explain why though, and what accounted for the difference in male and female behaviour. Why men are so much less likely to wash than women! Probably because people who use urinals do not think they need to wash their hands? Much to the embarrassment of her male co-anchor, the same female TV anchor I watched did not flinch while declaring, “Why should it be so? It is men who have something to hold while using the urinal, not so the women!” Public officials, however, felt that the overall message is that most Americans do wash their hands after using the bathroom; though, “we still have a long way to go!”

Observations for the study were made at restrooms in six different locations. Only 74 percent of baseball fans at Turner Field in Atlanta washed up, an even lower percentage than the 79 percent among commuters at Penn Station in New York. With 88 percent of those using public bathrooms at the local Farmers’ Market, San Franciscans were found more hygienic, but those at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago with 89 percent were found more sanitary.

The telephone poll asked about hand washing habits in other situations as well. Fewer than half the adults said they always washed after touching pets, sneezing, coughing, or handling money. Washing hands after changing a baby’s diaper is also not a universal habit, as the study found only 64 percent of men and 82 percent of women reporting they did so. While most people wash up before handling food, there still were 23 percent of adults who said they regularly handled food without first washing.

While education and income level did have something to do with washing practices, it was not clear exactly what the difference meant. More people in the lesser income level said they washed their hands after handling money, than those with higher incomes who considered money not dirty enough to require washing after touching it. Takes me back to my childhood, when among the many taboos our growing up was saddled with, touching money was one too; for reasons more than one – mainly, because money was touched by lepers and beggars with diseases. A dettol wash was a must for touching money even inadvertently! Perhaps the presence of more money around in adulthood removed this phobia, but to what extent education has affected, I am not sure.

Michael T. Osterholm, chairman of the public health committee of the ASM has been quoted in the media saying, “It’s not about education, it is about hygiene education. We have a problem at hospitals with doctors and nurses who don’t wash their hands after attending to a patient. You can’t get more educated than that!”

Working for an American multi-national as a senior executive with plenty of public dealing, my daughter tells me how paranoid she is at having to shake hands with all and sundry in the course of routine work. No ‘namaste’ would do, as we Indians would want to. A firm man’s handshake it is… And so the anti-germ treatment to the rescue. Every half hour or so, she squeezes a bottle of disinfectant lotion on to her hands, placed conveniently around the work place. “So annoying, but can’t help it,” she confides!

All this makes me wonder, in the Indian context: India is one large public toilet, and what Indians need is toilet-training – someone had wisely observed! To cap it, with a toilet so large and extending through the length and breadth of the country, I wonder what the findings be if ever a similar study is conducted in India. Where would we fare against the 82 percent in America who washed hands after a visit to the toilet? Will the answer, “we wash, they wipe!” do?

A scene from Dev Benegal’s filmi version of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August” comes to mind: The young IAS officer on his first field posting to rural Madna patiently watches the taluk official he is to call on finish urinating with a healthy shake of his you know what – and understandably hesitates to take the same hand the official extends in greeting him; and worse, soon the official insists on the officer partaking from the cup of tea he so generously offers, with the same hands!

Sept 29, 2005: 900 words: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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