by David Sisler

"I was last night with a party who celebrated the recitation of the Koran. When the reciters had accomplished their task, the servants spread a repast, comprising among other dishes a zirbajeh.

"We approached, therefore, to eat of the zirbajeh; but one of the company drew back, and refused to partake of it. We conjured him, yet he swore that he would not eat of it.

"When we continued to implore him he responded, I cannot eat of it unless I wash my hands forty times with kali, and forty times with cyprus, and forty times with soap, altogether 120 times.'"

The hapless man, the Sultan's Steward, in A Thousand and One Nights, was condemned to such excessive behavior because he had once offended the woman he loved by coming into her presence with the smell of zirbajeh on his hands.

Historic Jewish worship required ritual washings before meals. First the worshiper held his hands with the fingers pointing up. Water was poured on both hands and because it had touched unclean hands, it was now unclean. It had to run down over the wrists to drop off at the elbows. Then the process was repeated with the fingers pointing down and the water applied at the elbows. Finally, each hand was washed by being rubbed with the fist of the other hand. A very strict Jew would repeat the procedure between each course of a meal.

While neither procedure was intended to be medicinal, Dr. James W. Brown, technical director of the National Health Laboratories says that more than any one single procedure, proper handwashing is the most effective weapon in halting the spread of infection at hospitals and long-term care facilities.

The cycle of transmission of nosocomial infections, those infections which develop in hospitals, can be broken by proper handwashing. But a 1994 observation revealed that almost half of the individuals attending a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America did not wash their hands after using a public restroom.

A company called HyGenius has developed what it calls a state-of-the-art control and identification system that makes handwashing automatic and efficient and tattles, via a high-speed modem, on any worker who does not use it often enough.

Direct contact spreads most germs. A youngster in kindergarten sneezes and covers his mouth with his hands. At recess, a second pupil holds his hand and then wipes his mouth. At home, a sister takes a drink from the now-sneezing second child, and within a matter of days, the whole family has a cold. Your mama was right -- wash your hands.

But it is worse than that. At work, where I frequently use a computer, I may be the sneezer. Then I go to the keyboard and voila, my germs are deposited on asdf and their cousins. The next person who enters a sale after me, picks up my germs and later bites away a hang-nail. I can infect everyone with whom I work, plus everyone who shops there.

Telephone receivers are logical germ receptacles. So are handles: the refrigerator door, the office coffee pot, the newspaper dispensary, a public water fountain, suitcases, briefcases, and filing cabinets. Can you handle any more?

Did the restaurant worker who set up your table, wash his or her hands before putting out your silverware? What about the motel clerk who passed you the room key? The boy at the fast food restaurant who handed over your change and your order? The clerk at the book store? The check-out clerk at the grocery store? Did you just buy new glasses and try on a dozen frames before you found the ones you liked? Any unwashed hands out there?

In addition to spreading misery through the common cold and stomach upsets, poor handwashing habits are more risky today because increasing numbers of organisms are resistant to antibiotics. And there are still more ways and more places to pick up germs. Dr. Michael Osterholm, chairman of the American Society for Microbiology says, "Children's bottoms are bacterial, viral and parasitic uzis. All they need to set them off are unwashed human hands." Of course, all child-care workers know better, but they touch the faucet with dirty hands and after they wash, turn off the faucet with the same hands and pick up the germs again.

Do you have to be compulsive about handwashing? Unless you wear a mask and gloves, there may no place to hide, but good common sense and a good anti-bacterial soap will help. Wash for twenty seconds, getting between the fingers and all over the hands. Leave the water running while you dry your hands, and then turn the faucet off with a towel. Keep the towel in hand and use it to open the rest room door.

According to the folks at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, proper and consistent hand washing is the best way to stop the spread of disease. And all it takes is a little care and a little time.

Like the governor. He publicly called for a bowl and a towel and after disposing of the prisoner, washed his hands of the entire affair. The governor's name was Pilate. The prisoner? Jesus of Nazareth. Aren't you glad Jesus did not wash his hands of you?


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 11/16/96

Copyright 1996 by David Sisler

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