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Plummeting temperatures and falling humidity levels create the ideal conditions for illnesses to thrive. So it is no surprise that colds and other infections are much more common in winter than in the warmer months. Colds can cause misery for the sufferer while illnesses such as the norovirus can be even more debilitating. Cases of the flu also spike in the winter with much more serious and occasionally, even life-threatening consequences.

Alarmingly, there are indications that we may be facing a particularly bad winter for the flu. Here in the UK we take our cues from the most recent southern hemisphere winter, which saw double the number of flu cases this year compared to last.

Australia reported 98,000 confirmed cases of flu this winter with twice as many people being hospitalised as usual. So as winter starts to bite in the northern hemisphere – and with Global Handwashing Day occurring earlier this month – it is the ideal time to highlight the importance of hand washing in a bid to help prevent the spread of illness.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) around 20% of respiratory infections can be prevented through thorough hand hygiene. Hand washing is also the single most important means of preventing the spread of infections in general, claims the CDC.

Health experts agree that hand washing and drying is crucial after such activities as blowing the nose, coughing and sneezing as well as before and after preparing food, before and after eating and after throwing anything away in a refuse bin.

Hand washing should also be carried out after touching or feeding a pet and when caring for a sick person. And since washrooms are potential breeding grounds for germs it is also vitally important that people should wash their hands after using the toilet.

According to a 2003 American Society for Microbiology study around 83% of women and 74% of men claim to wash their hands after visiting the washroom. This means that 17% of women and more than a quarter of men admit to neglecting their hand hygiene.

Many of us are sceptical about the hand hygiene of others, according to our own research. A study by Essity, the manufacturer of Tork, revealed that while 85% of us are satisfied that we wash our hands well enough to remain healthy, 71% of us are unconvinced about the level of hand hygiene shown by others, and at work many of us are unhappy about sharing surfaces with colleagues.

According to another Tork study more than half of us worry about picking up a bug from colleagues at work while around 60% of us feel that working from home or in another remote location is likely to be good for our health.

The Tork Trend Report polled 8,000 office workers in 17 cities worldwide, also revealed that 42% of us are uncomfortable sharing washroom facilities with unfamiliar colleagues. And four out of 10 said they often

come across inadequately cleaned washrooms at work or ones where the soap and paper dispensers were empty.

A picture begins to emerge from all these studies. On the one hand, a significant percentage of people admit to neglecting their hand hygiene while others have little confidence in the hygiene levels of their peers. Empty soap and hand towel dispensers make it difficult for people to carry out good hand hygiene even if they should wish to do so.

However, the Tork Trend Report revealed that many of us would like to take control and help to improve this situation where possible. For example, 79% of respondents said they would quickly inform the facilities manager at work about any issues they have with the quality of hygiene products in their office washrooms.

From a general standpoint it makes sense to empower people to improve the facilities in the washrooms they visit. The presence of posters and stickers giving numbers to call when products have run out or when facilities require cleaning will encourage people to take matters into their own hands and ensure that something is done to improve hygiene in washrooms, for instance.

In larger facilities, systems such as Tork EasyCube can help to ensure that soaps and hand towels are always supplied. This is a system that “connects” each washroom via sensors and allows cleaning and facilities staff to check remotely via a smartphone or tablet when a maintenance visit might be required. Sensors inside the dispensers for soap, toilet tissue and hand towels and on washroom doors constantly monitor refill levels along with washroom traffic.

Meanwhile, cross-contamination in the washroom can be kept to a minimum where all consumables such as soap, toilet paper and hand towels are housed in enclosed dispensers. Tork Elevation dispensers, for example, protect the product inside and ensure that each washroom visitor only touches the soap or paper they use.

To mark Global Handwashing Day, Essity pooled research into hand hygiene statistics and issued guidelines to help people understand when thorough hand washing and drying is crucial. We have also published an online quiz to underline the importance of hand hygiene.

These materials remind people about the parts of the hands that we frequently neglect when washing such as the thumbs, the backs and sides of the hands and the fingertips. The hands should be thoroughly dried after washing, too, preferably with a paper hand towel since the rubbing action helps to physically remove bacteria from the hands.

These guidelines are not new, but they are frequently overlooked. Therefore, Global Handwashing Day was the ideal occasion on which to remind the public of the importance of hand hygiene and how it can help to arm them against the perils of winter. TOMORROW’S FM | 49

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