More than 80% of adults in the UK do not wash their hands for long enough to prevent infection, according to a survey conducted by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS).
The RPS is now asking the public to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds — as long as it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ twice — to reduce the risk of infection to ourselves and to those around us.
The survey, which was conducted as part of the RPS’s campaign on antimicrobial stewardship, showed that 65% of people do not always wash their hands before eating, and 32% do not always wash before preparing food. Half of the people surveyed said they did not always wash hands after touching their pets, and more than one in five (21%) of people admitted to not always washing their hands after using the toilet.
According to the RPS, inadequate handwashing leaves people at risk of bacterial and viral infections which can cause upset stomachs, pneumonia, colds and influenza. The microbes that cause these conditions can be picked up from contaminated surfaces, objects or people, and even if the carrier does not become ill, there is a risk that they could pass the infection to others.
Many patients will be prescribed antibiotics for common conditions, even those caused by viruses that are not responsive to antibiotics, when the infection could have been prevented by good hygiene.
“Even when we remain unaffected by the bugs we carry, if we do not wash our hands we can transmit infections, which then become a real problem for those who are more vulnerable, such as children and the elderly, who may then need to be prescribed antibiotics,” said Ash Soni, president of the RPS.
“We can never know what we are carrying or what impact it may have on those around us, which is why good handwashing is so important.
“If we can reduce the number of illnesses where antibiotics are needed, we can reduce antibiotic resistance by saving these important medicines for when they are really required.”
Soni added that while antibiotics should not be given for viral infections, they often are, partly due to patient demand.
“It’s easy to pick up an infection and once ill, people often visit their GP to request antibiotics because they think they are not getting better quickly enough, when in fact infections can be expected to last longer than you might think,” he said.
The average duration of the common cold is 14 days, and coughs and bronchitis typically persist for around three weeks. Sore throats and ear infections tend to last around seven or eight days, and sinusitis can take two or three weeks to clear up.
“Your local pharmacist can advise you about the natural course of your infection and the best way to manage it,” Soni said.
“Pharmacists can also offer advice on what to do on the occasions when your symptoms don’t clear up and when it is right to see a doctor.”
The RPS campaign on antimicrobial stewardship, launched on 3 September 2017, calls on pharmacists and the general public to play a greater role in safeguarding antibiotics and minimising the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
Antimicrobial stewardship has long been a policy and campaign focus of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS).
Responding to the UK Government’s Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy, published 13 September 2013, the RPS said that “Training of community pharmacists has the potential to reduce GP consultations by means of public education and symptomatic management of self-limiting infections”. In another response, to a 2014 NICE consultation on guidance for ‘Antimicrobial resistance: changing risk-related behaviours’ the Society said that the “use of minor ailment schemes whereby patients can receive symptomatic treatments for infections can decrease visits to a GP by 50% and reduce the number of prescribed antibiotics”.
In July 2014 the Society, together with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the UK Faculty of Public Health (FPH) published a Joint Statement on Antimicrobial Resistance. Among the recommendations of this statement was a call for antimicrobial prescribing data to be monitored, and for licensing requirements for new antimicrobials changed to include data on the minimum dosage required for clinical effectiveness.
In 2014, RPS Scotland collaborated with the Scottish Antimicrobial Prescribing Group (SAPG), Community Pharmacy Scotland and Pharmacy Voice to produce a European Antibiotic Awareness day resource pack for community pharmacists, which included a patient-directed self-care information leaflet for treating infectious ailments. The packs were distributed in November 2014.
Later that month, on European Antibiotic Awareness Day itself — 18 November 2014 — RPS Scotland held a parliamentary reception and debate on antimicrobial resistance, sponsored by Jim Eadie MSP. The event led to a Scottish Parliamentary debate on the subject, held on 5 February 2015. Also on European Antibiotic Awareness Day, RPS Wales and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) held a lunchtime discussion with Welsh Assembly Members (AMs) on the use of antibiotics in primary care. During the summit, the two professional bodies called for Wales to commit to a public education campaign on the subject, and greater antimicrobial stewardship.
At the 2017 annual conference, the RPS launched its new GB-wide campaign on antimicrobial stewardship. The campaign aims to show how pharmacists are contributing to a targeted 50% reduction in inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics by 2020. As part of this campaign, the AMS portal — a hub for health professionals co-produced by the RPS and University College London — will be updated and relaunched.
Throughout all antimicrobial campaign and policy activity, the Antimicrobial Expert Advisory Group — chaired by antimicrobial pharmacist Harpal Dhillon —acts to advise the Society and shape policy on the subject.