What began as a greeting among athletes and high schoolers across America may now be the most effective way of fighting dangerous infections.
It’s been known to medical professionals for quite some time that the human hand is one of the dirtiest parts of the body - at least when it comes to microbes. Consequently, an extended handshake is a great way to ensure that the person you’re greeting gets a palm-full of whatever pathogens you happen to be harboring.
As a result, may hospitals in the US are experimenting with “handshake-free zones”, where the time-honoured reception is discouraged.
"We are trying to do everything to minimize hospital-acquired infection except for the most obvious and easiest thing to do, in my opinion, which is to stop shaking hands," said Dr. Mark Sklansky to NPR. "If I am at a computer terminal or using a phone or opening a door, I know my hands are now contaminated, and I need to be careful and I need to wash my hands."
Infections acquired at a hospital are no joke. About 1 in 25 patients will acquire an infection while in hospital, and many of these turn out to be drug-resistant strains like MRSA or C. difficile. As a means of combating these bacteria, Dr. Sklanksy instituted the ban at two hospitals in Los Angeles in their neonatal intensive care unit.
A study that definitively shows the ban as helping in the fight against infection has not yet been completed, but earlier work is proving to be very promising.
In a study conducted in 2014, Dr. Whitworth of Aberystwyth University found that a good handshake was the least hygienic form of greeting, passing, on average, 124 million live bacteria to whomever you’re greeting.
The exuberant high-five passed on almost half as much, while the humble fist bump transferred a mere one-tenth the bacteria as the handshake.
"We tested the idea that different contact greetings might allow different numbers of bacteria to move between shakers, and we found that a firm prolonged handshake allowed the largest transfer of bacteria of any greeting we tested," reported Dr. Whitworth.
Maureen Shawn Kennedy, editor of the American Journal of Nursing and speaking with The Daily Mail, agrees that handshakes have no place in a hospital. "There are just so many reasons to avoid handshakes, even when people are washing their hands."
While many doctors are pushing for a handshake ban, detractors say thorough handwashing is the real solution hospital infections. However, a 2010 study in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology discovered that only 40 percent of health care professionals wash their hands frequently or thoroughly enough to comply with hospital guidelines.