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'Hand hygiene is central to tackling antibiotic resistance'

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The World Health Organization’s drive to address the threat of global antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has intensified in recent years.

There is now a sense of urgency to address what has been described by Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, as an “alarming and irreversible” crisis on the same level as global warming.

The WHO is committed to leading efforts to combat the spread of AMR, with several resolutions adopted around the globe. A resolution made earlier this year urges member states to give it a high priority and outlines a mandate for action.

Since 2009, the WHO’s SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands campaign makes an annual global call to action on 5 May. The aim is to sustain hand hygiene improvement worldwide to reduce microbial transmission of healthcare-associated infections. The 2014 call focuses on hand hygiene in addressing the problem of microbes that are resistant to antibiotics.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when a microorganism is no longer destroyed or stopped from reproducing by an anti-microbial medicine to which it was originally sensitive - quite simply, “the drugs don’t work any more”. In recent years, some common pathogens have demonstrated multi-drug resistance and have caused infections, including those of urinary tract, bloodstream and wounds.

More recently, microbes have started to show resistance to a group of antibiotics called carbepenemases; yet another group of antibiotics no longer work as effectively to clear infections. The number of antibiotics that can treat patients is shrinking, and there are rare cases of microbes that have become resistant to almost all antibiotics in use, potentially taking us back to a pre-antibiotic age.

Tackling AMR requires action on multiple levels, the prudent use of antibiotics being one of the key actions.

The importance of infection prevention and control in general and hand hygiene in particular in preventing the spread of microorganisms has been repeatedly highlighted. One way to control AMR is ensuring that resistant microorganisms are not spread via the hands of (mainly) healthcare workers, and do not have the opportunity to invade vulnerable patients’ bodies. Hand hygiene helps to make this potential threat into an avoidable one.

Hand hygiene undertaken at the right time - the WHO’s 5 Moments for Hand Hygiene - prevents the spread of resistant or sensitive organisms that can be present on or in patients or in our environment.

The WHO and many countries are calling for dedicated action to stop the spread of AMR organisms and we all have our role to play in this. The WHO asks you to support its campaign by using the tools and guidance it provides to protect patients on 5 May 2014 and, indeed, every day.


Claire Kilpatrick is communications lead; Julie Storr is president; Helen O’Connor is education and practice development group member; all at the Infection Prevention Society.


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