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“Go wash your hands! Now!”

October 18, 2004

“Go wash your hands! Now!”

If this dredges up certain childhood memories for you, I apologize, but I’m repeating timely advice. Washing your hands – often – is a critical step in protecting yourself (and others) from cold and flu infections.

Who knows what this flu season has in store, but one thing it doesn’t have is flu vaccine, the supply of which is woefully short.

So, at the public library we’re taking public health more seriously this year. We’ve posted signs about the flu and good health, We’re asking citizens for their cooperation in protecting others by avoiding public places if they are sneezing and coughing.

We’ve removed all the stuffed animals from the children’s room. With the specter of flu season looming, every teddy bear and doll became a potential vector. Each blank stare from those beady little eyes became a malignant glare. So we locked them up.

Every day, we’ll be cleaning keyboards, mice, telephones, handrails, door handles, and counters when we can, but needless to say, prevention on everyone’s part is the best defense.

Like colds, flu can be spread simply by touching secretions from an infected person such as might be left on a door knob, public phone, or countertop, and then touching one’s eyes, nose, or mouth.

We are always putting our hands to our face. It’s a powerful habit, and we’re often not aware of doing it. But to the extent you can stop yourself, and to the extent you wash your hands after touching an infected surface, you will decrease your chances of getting sick this winter.

And if you’re sick, this awareness might keep you from spreading it to others.

>From a variety of authorities (FDA, CDC, etc.), we collected estimates for how long the flu virus can survive outside the body: one, two, three, four, and six hours. Much less than a day.

Thus, you don’t have to worry as much about catching the flu from books. Most will have been shelved long enough for the virus to die. You can worry more about door handles and keyboards, if you like.

The flu, more so than colds, is also spread through the aerosol droplets left in the air after sneezing or coughing. So, it’s good to avoid sick people, and if you’re sick, to avoid infecting others.

We should all remember the childhood lesson to cover a sneeze or cough, and the best way is to use a tissue or sleeve rather than one’s bare hand … for obvious reasons.

Handwashing, like anything, can be done well or not. The library has a short video on handwashing, which we bought not for the flu season (although it applies) but for a restaurant that wanted it available for training.

It’s only seven minutes long, but it cleverly recreates scenes that show common ways people can spread germs.

The recommended time for handwashing with soap and warm water is 15-20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing the ABC song to yourself. It’s longer than think.

Alternatives include the waterless handcleaning gels that contain alcohol. We’ve kept a small bottle at the desk for staff, but now we’ll keep a bottle by the Internet sign-in sheet and encourage people to use it before sitting down at the computers.

It’s only been 160 years since anyone first considered handwashing a virtue, and humans are slow to learn. The breakdown of good handwashing practices still plague institutions from day care centers to hospitals to restaurants.

But it’s a simple solution: Wash your hands.

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