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Has the world become complacent about hygiene?

15 January 2018

Approaches to hygiene have evolved throughout human history. John Hines, Research & Development Director for skin care and hygiene expert Deb, looks at why we need to keep that evolution going into the future.

Hygiene has always been critical to survival. From ancient civilisations to the present day, it plays a vital role in preventing the spread of infection and disease. In the modern world, hygiene still plays a critical role in health and wellbeing, but in many situations the biggest risk is complacency.

An increasingly clean living environment separated from nature and an overdependence on antibiotics has left people in a comfort zone when it comes to dealing with infection; diseases that could once kill have in many cases been reduced to a mild discomfort. However, less than 100 years after their introduction, anti-microbial resistance (AMR) increasingly threatens to render the majority of our medicines ineffective in treating disease.

Our understanding of how to prevent infection has taken millennia to fully develop, and the potential dangers of AMR highlight the need to remember the periods throughout history when hygiene could often be the simple difference between life and death.

How hygiene has shaped history

To better illustrate the need for society to maintain a focus on hand hygiene, here are three hand hygiene moments that changed the world and saved lives:

  1. When hygiene became part of religion

Pretty much every single one of the world’s religions has, at some point, made a clear link between cleanliness and spiritual purity in their scriptures.

Washing in clear water before paying homage to the gods or deities became a ceremonial part of every religion – and religious leaders encouraging followers to bathe is the first example of systematic hygiene practices in action.

Adherence to religious hygiene practice could, quite literally, save your life.

  1. When hand hygiene became a science

In 1546, physician Girolamo Fracastoro came up with the revolutionary idea that infection could be passed on and harboured by surfaces such as clothes and the hand. Sadly, this would be mostly ignored for centuries.

Fast forward to the 19th Century, however, and scientists had built on Fracastoro’s work to create ‘germ theory’– identifying microorganisms as the cause of many diseases. This kick-started a total transformation in disease control leading to the creation of modern hygiene practices that prevent the spread of bacteria.

Germ Theory, and the practical hygiene practices that it inspired, is one of the fundamental building blocks of modern society.

  1. When hand hygiene became simple

Understanding how diseases worked did not just make it easier to treat them, it fuelled the development of ways to stop them spreading, through the use of synthetic chemistry.

So, where soap and water had been the only hygiene product for more than 2,000 years, the 20th Century saw the introduction of cleansers and sanitisers designed specifically to reduce microbes carried by the skin in particular on the hands.

While these innovations transformed health and wellbeing throughout the 20th century, we cannot forget the lessons of the past, most important of which is that hygiene is first and foremost about practical behaviours. The most advanced products will not work unless we remember to use them!

Why hygiene is vital to the world of today (and tomorrow)

The history of hygiene has been one of constant improvement and evolution, and much of this has come from understanding how vital it is for maintaining health. However, there are still major challenges that need to be overcome to avoid a future disease outbreak.

If individuals and organisations do not model their behaviour around recommended practices, the number of people suffering with infection and disease will quickly rise again. This is especially important in healthcare settings, where 5,000 patients contract a fatal healthcare-associated infection (HCAI) in England every year.

The numbers might be small when stacked up against history, but it shows that hand hygiene is very much still critical to good health. Organisations everywhere should adopt effective hand hygiene procedures – providing the right products in the right places, monitoring compliance and educating individuals on how they can break the chain of infection.