The traditional health measure is valid now more than ever

If I sound as if I am harping, I am. But since it is a matter of life or death, it is important to remind everyone, especially people in the medical profession, to WASH YOUR HANDS.

I am beginning to feel like I am channeling Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who in the mid 1800’s came to realize that doctors who performed autopsies or examined a patient and then did not wash their hands before delivering a baby or examining an expectant mother were responsible for so many women dying of puerperal fever. The women who delivered at home, or were attended to by midwives or gave birth before making it to the hospital more rarely suffered from this bacterial infection.

In the 1840’s the realization of what could be causing the deaths dawned on several men from Oliver Wendell Holmes to my hero, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, an Austrian. (I am convinced that new ideas float in the stratosphere and are picked up by those paying attention.) They put forth the idea that doctors who did not wash their hands or their instruments were the cause of puerperal fever. However, Charles Delucena Meigs, a well known obstetrician at the time, said, “Doctors are gentlemen and gentlemen’s hands are clean.” It was not until 1867, when the germ theory was accepted, that Joseph Lister wrote on the subject, and cleaner hands prevailed.

It is hard to believe that over 150 years later patients in hospitals throughout the world continue to die of bacterial infections that they contact in hospitals. These infections are called HIA, and today there is a growing fear that a new bacteria that is deadly and impervious to any present antibiotic is emerging. Ironically, we will probably learn that the overuse of antibacterial soaps, etc. and the overuse of antibiotics unnecessarily are partially responsible. But the answer still is WASH YOUR HANDS (plain soap and water will do if you wash thoroughly). And use sterile equipment.

In spite of what we have learned, in the U.S. today 99,000 deaths a year are due to hospital acquired infections. In Europe, where surveys are available, it is estimated that HAI are responsible for two-thirds of the 25,000 yearly deaths.

I couldn’t find any statistics for Costa Rica, but I have been in all of the hospitals in the city except the Católica, for one reason or another, including three operations, and for different lengths of time and have never had an infection. I have also witnessed medical personnel wash their hands more often here than elsewhere. However, my empleada spent a half hour this past week recounting to me the various fatal infections she was aware of at just one of the Caja hospitals. All of her stories were of people who had had operations.

So, as they are advising on U.S. TV where reports of this untreatable and deadly bacteria is surfacing in hospitals, if you are going in for an operation, make sure the doctors caring for you are washing their hands. Don’t be reluctant to ask. It is your life. And it is an unnecessary way to die.

Cautionary steps are necessary, but it seems this generation of parents may be taking too many precautions with their children. According to many reports, keeping children too uncontaminated by their environment in their early years prevents them from building up their natural immunities and makes them more prone to infections and allergies and conditions like asthma, later, which, of course, can mean more visits to the hospital. That is where moms should pull out their antiseptic lotions.

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