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Thou Shalt Wash Thy Hands!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

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We’ve certainly heard a lot about hand-washing during these flu-ridden days. You might say authorities can get downright preachy. But what if the Health Department told you to scrub and rinse well – and then pray to God?

You might wonder whether city government has turned evangelical. Or whether officials were throwing in the proverbial towel on science and looking to faith for help combating disease. But not quite. They're just trying to meet people where they wash.

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Last year, during an outbreak of shigellosis, a rapidly-spreading form of diarrhea, in the Orthodox Jewish communities of Williamsburg and Boro Park, the Health Department reached out to community leaders to see how best to spread the word about hand-washing. The Department has long had posters suggesting the proper technique for hand-washing, so officials decided to adapt these posters for the devout.

It turned out that after relieving themselves, very Orthodox Jews ritually wash their hands and say a blessing. Basically, they’re thanking God for keeping their plumbing running smoothly. The ablution doesn’t – and religiously shouldn’t – involve soap. But with the input of religious leaders, the Health Department came up with a way of combining secular sanitary techniques with religious ritual. They printed it up in both English and Yiddish, and, voila!, an exhortation was born, urging washers to clean both their hands and spirits at the same time.

“Our goal wasn’t to give instructions about prayer, so much as to incorporate proper hand-washing into something people were already doing, in a way that’s culturally sensitive,” says Dr. Sharon Balter, an epidemiologist at the Department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease. “These are communities with a lot of children, and if you have a lot of them in diapers in daycare or school, [the] shigella [bacteria] can spread really quickly. So you have to really, really promote hand-washing.”

The outbreak led to more than 300 cases of the disease, over 8 months. Shigellosis, while unpleasant in the extreme, is rarely life-threatening. A half-dozen kids were hospitalized overnight, and that was the worst of it.

Balter says the poster is still being distributed, in versions for both adults and kids, to schools, yeshivas and other places people gather. There’s no way to know whether people are really getting the memo, but she says if people follow the advice – including washing for a good 20 seconds – they will reduce their chances of getting many illnesses, including flu, diarrhea and more.

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