ALLISON REILLY: If I had to choose what the bigger medical advance would be, I would have to go with vaccines. Because of vaccines, smallpox is no more and many diseases have been ELIMINATED from the United States. Handwashing does not have that same impact on public health.
Though both hand washing and vaccines affirm the premise that it’s better to prevent a person from getting sick than to treat them once they get sick, vaccines are much more foolpro0f in prevention. With exception to hepatitis B and tetanus, folks get one shot and that’s it. No more risk of getting mumps, measles, chicken pox or rhubella. There’s a new vaccine that prevents liver cancer, and a shingles vaccine that’s making news this week. Sure, handwashing helps, but hand washing just doesn’t do what vaccines do to improve public health and to protect people against diseases.
Because of vaccines, the number of deaths attributed to measles has decreased 40 percent over the past decade. Because of vaccines, polio has been contained to just a few countries. Most importantly, vaccines are key in preventing infectious diseases in infants and toddlers, folks who aren’t able to wash their hands on their own. Vaccines have made a vital contribution to public health and medical progress that cannot be ignored.
CHRIS PUMMER: Vaccines are tribute to medical science advances, especially within the last 100 years. But the first line of defense is still washing your hands.
It’s easy to forget that handwashing hasn’t really been a common practice, even among doctors, for more than 150 years. (Anyone who is suffering from a cold this winter might frustratingly think it’s still not common enough). In fact, it was met with stiff resistance, even as Ignaz Semmelweis was demonstrating in a Vienna hospital that the practice reduced the mortality attributed to childbed fever from above 30 percent to less than 1 percent in two year’s time.
Those kind of results are dramatic. I dare say more dramatic than the the results delivered by even the smallpox or polio vaccines in terms of what routine handwashing could do to boost public health.
Handwashing doesn’t just prevent diseases. It keeps them from being actively spread through social contact. It’s a practice that can hold down the number of cases of a myriad of illnesses for which no vaccine has been, or likely to be developed.
And most importantly, it’s a practice that’s simple to understand, and simple practice to follow.