Preventative medicine expert speaks on handwashing

JMU News

by Madison Buiting


Harrisonburg, Virginia. — The future is in our hands, literally. Handwashing is one of the easiest ways to minimize the spread of contagious diseases. 

Global Handwashing Day, October 15, is a worldwide initiative designed to increase awareness of the importance of washing one’s hands. Wearing masks is at the forefront of disease prevention, but handwashing is just as essential. 

Catherine Zeman, academic unit head of health sciences in the College of Health and Behavioral Studies and professor with degrees in nursing and preventative medicine, provides some answers to common questions about hand hygiene. 

Q: In what situations should people wash their hands?

A: The CDC recommends before, during and after preparing food, before and after eating food, before and after caring for someone who is sick, before and after treating a cut, wound or acne, after using the toilet, after changing a diaper, after touching animals or cleaning animal waste, and after dealing with garbage to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. 

Q: What happens when someone skips washing their hands?

A: When someone skips this step, they risk contaminating themselves, other surfaces, food stuffs and other people with microbes that can cause and spread infectious and communicable disease. 

Q: What illnesses does handwashing prevent?

A: There are likely others but a good start is colds/flu, pink eye, salmonellosis, mono, foot and mouth disease, CMV (cytomegalovirus), Staph/Strep, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), Hepatitis A, Giardiasis, Hemolytic E. Coli 0157H7. While the common cold is not very dangerous (unless immune compromised), some conditions such as 0157H7 have killed small children and the immune compromised. All good reasons to avoid these microbes by frequent handwashing. 

Q: For good reason, emphasis seems to be on wearing masks lately. How can we bring handwashing back into the conversation?

A: Events like this are good ways to encourage the conversation, and, also reminding people that the diseases listed above, if considering the total numbers of cases at any point in time across the US, account for hundreds of thousands of cases of suffering and illness that is avoidable, simply by washing one’s hands. 

The theme for Global Handwashing Day 2021 is “Our Future is at Hand – Let’s Move Forward Together.” This day serves as a worldwide reminder of the vital role that good hand hygiene plays in keeping each other healthy.


Contact: Eric Gorton,, 540-908-1760 

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Published: Friday, October 15, 2021

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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