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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

Henry the Hand. He's cool, clean and may just save a life now and then

Will Sawyer, MD, is something of a voice in the wilderness when it comes to spreading the gospel of hand hygiene, but he assures me with an easy laugh that he won’t let the issue drive him crazy like Ignaz Semmelweis .

Some 150 years ago the Hungarian physician, who was widely discredited by the medical community for rather tenaciously observing that hand washing prevents infections, died in an insane asylum in Vienna. Semmelweis was later vindicated of course, but infection preventionists attempting to reaffirm his hand hygiene message have been flirting with madness ever since. Hand hygiene has been the bedrock and bane of hospital infection control since its inception. Historically speaking, the odds of a health care worker having washed their hands before touching a patient have been roughly equivalent to a coin flip. Heads the patient wins, tails they could be joining the 100,000 souls lost every year to healthcare-associated infections.

Perhaps culture change must begin at an earlier age, dare we say before medical and nursing school. Sawyer’s agent of change is Henry the Hand and a website aimed at reaching the young, unwashed masses.

His four Principles of Hand Awareness are:

1. Wash your hands when they are dirty and BEFORE eating

2. DO NOT cough into your hands

3. DO NOT sneeze into your hands

4. Above all, DO NOT put your fingers into your eyes, nose or mouth

He also teaches the concept of the “T Zone,” which is comprised of the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth. Those mucous membranes are the only portals of entry for bacteria that cause respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. Thus, touching your T Zone with fingers or hands that are contaminated with germs can make you sick, he advises. The website resources are available for teachers, school nurses and infection preventionists who are doing public education and outreach. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to see Henry the Hand walking the floors of a hospital now and again. On the contrary, it may save a life.