- We can thank Ignaz Semmelweis for our greatest weapon against covid-19
- Washing our hands is the best way to keep us safe and reduce the spread of the virus
- However, hand washing was not always common medical practice, Semmelweis changed that
During these trying times, there is not much we can do besides stay home, keep away from people and wash our hands.
Hand washing has been identified as the most effective way to stop the spread of the coronavirus covid-19. However, crazy as it sounds - washing your hands was not always seen as necessary or even a good thing.
During the 19th century, a Hungarian doctor called Ignaz Semmelweis came up with a novel way to bring down the mortality rate in the maternity wing of the hospital that he worked at.
Briefly.co.za learned that the Vienna General Hospital had two maternity divisions, one was staffed by doctors and the other was staffed by midwives.
To his horror, Semmelweis found that new mothers were dying of childbed fever, a disease common to a maternity wing. However, there were fewer cases in the wings staffed by the midwives.
He set out to find why. His first theory was air, it was commonly thought that disease was spread through bad air, called a miasma, as well as overcrowding and an unhealthy diet. However, in both divisions, the conditions were the same. This meant Semmelweis had to do some scientific enquiry.
Another theory was the position that mothers gave birth in, one on their side, the other on their back. Semmelweis had both divisions use the same position, it did not affect the death rate.
A third theory was the sound of the priest's bell would cause psychological terror as he rang it while walking through the hospital. Unsurprisingly, this did not have any effect either.
In 1847, Semmelweis had his revolutionary breakthrough. One of his colleagues cut his finger while performing an autopsy. He died from an infection. Semmelweis correctly guessed that bits of the dead body had gotten into his friend's finger. This tied to the death rate because doctors would often go straight from an autopsy to the delivery room according to CNN.
Semmelweis instructed the doctors to wash their hands with chlorinated lime between patients and autopsies. Eventually, the mortality rate in the doctor's division matched that of the midwives.
Unfortunately, Semmelweis' colleagues did not believe that hand washing was the answer, due to other cases of childbed fever outside of the hospital. Decades later, Semmelweis was credited for adding our understanding of 'germ theory' which helped us understand how diseases spread.
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