Yakima Herald Republic
August 17, 2006

Have you hugged a stranger today?

Public health experts don’t find that an odd question. In fact, it may be a rallying cry in the event of a pandemic influenza.

They certainly won’t be advocating a handshake, which they clearly view as public enemy No. 1 ó especially if the widespread threat of the Avian flu strain, which has killed millions of birds and more than 100 people since 1997, becomes a reality.

In a public health forum in Yakima last week, the state’s top health officer reinforced the message that experts (along with your mother) have been saying for years when it comes to stopping the spread of disease: Wash your hands. This simple task is vitally important when facing the potential ravages of a worldwide outbreak of influenza such as the Avian flu. Experts predict such a pandemic could cause more than 200,000 deaths nationwide and at least 5,000 in our state alone, with thousands requiring hospital stays and outpatient visits.

But do people really wash their hands?

Results from several exhaustive studies are not very encouraging.

Even in hospitals and clinics where hand washing is a required regimen, upwards of 50 percent of the trained personnel failed to properly wash their hands. Now consider how poorly the general populace does with regards
to scrubbing under their finger-nails, and you can see why health
officials are encouraging hugs, not handshakes.

In Central Washington, we recently had clear proof that hand washing is an infrequent habit. An outbreak of norovirus, commonly known as the “cruise ship virus,” infected more than 150 people in Kittitas County. The victims suffered through several very uncomfortable days of diarrhea and nausea that’s the result of this highly contagious virus.

Norovirus is typically spread by eating infected food, touching contaminated objects or coming in contact with an infected person. And what do health officials recommend as the best preventive measure?

Washing your hands.

We have certainly seen that in the aftermath of such calamities as Hurricane Katrina, communities like ours can’t count on the federal government, or state agencies, for that matter, to come to the rescue. We have to be prepared within our counties, between our cities and among our neighborhoods. All of us will have to pitch in and help each other. Only through cooperation and diligent adherence to health safety rules ó don’t go to work if you’re sick and don’t panic ó will we keep the spread of an influenza in check.

That’s why we join the experts and recommend hugs before handshakes.

And who knows? Giving someone a warm hug, whether that person is a total stranger or a politician in need of a friendly embrace, may lead to something more than improved public health. An improved outlook on life.

That’s not a bad way to defeat a pandemic and, at the very least, not a bad way to start the day.