Hand washing – the cornerstone of infection control

The tragic loss of ten newborns in the Tembisa Hospital from the deadly Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacterales (CRE), is a sad reminder of just how easily harmful bacteria can take hold and threaten the lives of our most vulnerable population groups.

CRE falls into the category of a multi drug-resistant (MDR) bacteria, which are currently estimated to be responsible for 700 000 deaths a year and which the World Bank believes will be responsible for 10 million deaths a year by the year 2050.

According to StatsSA’s 2019 General Household Survey, about 84% of South Africans fall outside the medical aid net. This means that roughly 45 million people are largely dependent on public healthcare.
These numbers of patients visiting public health facilities present a huge threat if these facilities are not adequately prepared for the possibility of infection in their public spaces.

Emma Corder, MD of Industroclean believes that, apart from the tragic human cost, these infections place a significant burden on both the public and private health sectors and drive up healthcare costs unnecessarily.

Regular, thorough and methodical cleaning of public areas is almost certainly one of the easiest routes to help prevent the spread of infections carried by either patients or their visitors. Given that both the materials and the human resources needed to maintain hygienic conditions are a small portion of a hospital’s budget, money should not be a prohibiting factor.

Corder adds that adopting and sticking to a basic set of standard precautions can go a long way to aid in preventing the spread of infection. “Many infections are transferred through contact with body fluids and blood. By implementing rigorous infection control practices, lives and valuable health resources can be saved. Hand washing is the cornerstone of infection control”, explains Corder.

Regardless of whether gloves have been worn or not; hands should be washed before and after contact with a patient; after contact with blood or body fluids; after touching medical equipment; before eating; after using the toilet; and after coughing or sneezing.

Ensuring that basic equipment such as stethoscopes and pens are clean, and surfaces are disinfected remains a priority in infection control. The actual cleaning equipment should be checked regularly to ensure that it is in good working condition and it is recommended that it be cleaned and sanitised thoroughly after use.

Personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes gloves, gowns and masks provides protection against infectious agents. “These PPE are especially important when touching blood, body fluids and mucous membranes”, says Corder, but cautions that, equally important is following the correct steps for putting on and taking off PPE.” Remember that the outside of the gloves may be contaminated, so if your hands touch the outside of the gloves during removal, immediately wash your hands or rub them with alcohol gel”.

But while it is relatively easy to focus on catastrophic outbreaks occurring due to neglect in clinical areas, public spaces present a far wider-reaching threat to visitors and patients alike.

Corder believes that hygiene is one of the easiest ways to help prevent infections and at the same time the biggest risk of causing real harm if neglected.

“Maintaining the highest levels of hygiene is a rudimentary principle in the industry, and one that requires neither huge investment nor highly-skilled staff”, she concludes.