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I'd shake your hand, but...

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Women do it better than men, but no one does it perfectly. We're talking about hand washing here. Specifically, about a new survey of washrooms in public places that found that only 83 percent of American adults actually wash their hands after using the bathroom, even though 91 percent claim that they always do.

The survey was released on Sept. 21 by the American Society for Microbiology and the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group, in honor of "Clean Hands Week."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta maintain that hand washing is the most important thing we can do to prevent colds, flu and foodborne illness. Others agree.

"Eighty percent of all infections are transmitted by direct and indirect contact," says Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center and author of five books, including "The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter" (Atria, 2001) and "Protect Yourself Against Bioterrorism" (Pocket Books, 2002).

"If this is the profound statement that we have to work with," he continues, "then it stands to reason that the single most important thing anybody can do for themselves to protect health and safeguard themselves against unnecessary infection is washing your hands."

But not all hand washing is equal: Tierno recommends washing for 40 seconds or longer -- enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. The CDC, on the other hand, will accept a 20-second wash.

The new studies looked at hand washing without a time limit. One was an observational study to assess what people are really doing, and the other was a telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults designed to find out what Americans say they are doing.

For the first study, more than 6,300 individuals were observed as they washed or didn't wash their hands in restrooms at different public attractions in four major cities: Atlanta's Turner Field, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium, New York City's Grand Central Station and Penn Station, and San Francisco's Ferry Terminal Farmers' Market.

Overall 83 percent of adults observed -- 90 percent of women and 75 percent of men -- did wash their hands. In the telephone survey, however, 91 percent of adults claimed to always or usually wash their hands after using a public restroom.

The worst hand-hygiene habits were found at Turner Field, where 26 percent of sports fans did not wash their hands and 84 percent of women did wash their hands, as compared to just 37 percent of men. Presumably the majority of stadiumgoers are men.

San Francisco's Ferry Terminal Farmers' Market scored the best, with 88 percent of men and women washing their hands. New York's Penn Station had the greatest gender gap, with 92 percent of women washing up and only 64 percent of men.

At Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, 89 percent of adults -- 85 percent of males and 93 percent of females -- washed their hands, while at Chicago's science museum 87 percent washed their hands, including 81 percent of males and 93 percent of females. In the public restrooms at New York's Grand Central Station, 79 percent of all adults, including 67 percent of men and 89 percent of women, washed their hands.

On the telephone the picture appeared brighter, with 83 percent saying they washed their hands after using the bathroom at home, 77 percent before handling or eating food, and 73 percent when changing a diaper. On the other hand, only 42 percent said that they washed after petting a dog or cat, 21 percent after touching money and 32 percent after coughing or sneezing.

The perception-reality gap was more pronounced among men, 88 percent of whom said they washed their hands after using a public restroom when only 75 percent were actually seen doing it.

Ninety-four percent of women said that they washed their hands, but only 90 percent were caught in the act.

The proportion of people seen washing their hands rose slightly in this survey, up from 78 percent in 2003. This was apparently due to an increase among females, from 83 percent to 90 percent, as compared to males, who improved only from 74 percent to 75 percent.

The picture is also brighter than that found in 2003 in U.S.

airports. In that study, more than one in five travelers neglected to use the sink, thereby failing to protect themselves and others against infectious germs.

c.2005 HealthDay News

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