ABC MELBOURNE DRIVE
THURSDAY, 15 OCTOBER 2020
SUBJECTS: Global Handwashing Day; Randomistas.
RAF EPSTEIN, HOST: Someone has written about this in his book Randomistas, is known to you in another guise - his day job. Andrew Leigh's day job is being part of the Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s finance team. He is of course an MP from Canberra as well. Andrew Leigh, thanks for joining us.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Pleasure, Raf. Happy Global Handwashing Day.
EPSTEIN: Thank you. No one's ever said that to me before. Who is Mr Semmelweis? What did he do?
LEIGH: Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor who worked at Vienna General Hospital in the mid-19th century, and he noticed this really interesting pattern Raf. They admitted patients on alternate days into the maternity ward where babies were delivered by midwives and the maternity ward where babies were delivered by doctors. And he noticed that mothers admitted into the clinic run by midwives had a death rate less than one in 20, while those admitted to the hospital run by doctors had a death rate of more than one in 10. The mothers actually knew this - some of them would actually deliver in the streets rather than be admitted into the ward run by doctors. So he went through various theories. Was it that the doctors were delivering when women lay on their sides? Was something to do with the bell that the priest rang? Eventually he figured out that it had to do with dirty hands. And so he began insisting that doctors wash their hands with chlorine wash and the death rate in the doctors’ ward plummeted. And that was the start of the hand washing movement.
EPSTEIN: I expect midwives have been washing their hands for thousands of years. It just took men a while to cotton on. Chlorine wash?
LEIGH: Raf, the bit I should have added was the doctors were doing autopsies and then coming in to deliver babies straight from the autopsy ward.
EPSTEIN: Ah, gosh. So how did the doctors take to washing their hands with chlorine?
LEIGH: Very badly. Chlorine was quite painful, and so many of them objected. They said that Semmelweis didn't have a good theory and, to be honest, he didn't. It was well before Pasteur had come up with the germ theory of disease. And then he was largely discredited. Chlorine washing was in place while he was at Vienna General Hospital and then he was essentially hounded out. He was committed to an asylum by his colleagues, and a fortnight after being admitted, he was beaten by the guards and died. So he never got the recognition that he deserved during his life for this extraordinary lifesaving innovation.
EPSTEIN: That's terrible. But who came up with germ theory? Was it Pasteur or Jon Snow? Because they both contribute ideas, don't they? Did I get that wrong about John Snow and the pub in Soho, noticing the germs from cholera?
LEIGH: Snow plays an important role in public health in noticing on that particular outbreak, that it was contaminated water that was making a difference. It was Pasteur who comes up with the germ theory of disease towards the end of the 19th century. But the funny thing is, Raf, not every Australian has adopted this. We have surveys of the share of Australians who wash their hands and 24 per cent of blokes say they don't wash their hands after using the toilet, 18 per cent of women say they don't.
EPSTEIN: Oh, I know. We've done that talk back. It's astonishing the number of people who say that they don’t need to wash their hands after they've been to the toilet.
LEIGH: You know what you can do? If you watch somebody, they're more likely to wash their hands. So they put hidden cameras into bathrooms. Blokes who think they're not being observed are much more likely to walk straight out than if there's another bloke in the bathroom.
EPSTEIN: I'll tell you what, if and when Labor wins an election, you would go down in history if you could just design, ensure that every single public toilet has a door handle you don't have to touch on your way out. You should pull the door on your way into the public toilet and push it on the way out, because that sort of negates a bit of the washing of the hands, doesn't it?
LEIGH: Certainly does. Or we can have automatically opening and closing doors, as lots of other countries have in airport bathrooms, for example. It’s big. There's an estimated 4 million cases of food poisoning every year that have to do with people not washing their hands, and we know the problem is worst among younger Australians. A full 69 per cent of under 34 years say they're not wash their hands regularly after using the bathroom.
EPSTEIN: So is the true measure of your success inside your party whether or not hand washing is a part of Anthony Albanese’s opening campaign speech at the beginning of the next federal election campaign?
LEIGH: Hand washing is one of those amazing medical breakthroughs that took a long time to be adopted. I always contrast it with anaesthetics. Basically within a few years of the discovery of anaesthetics, surgeons were all using it - because it's really unpleasant to operate on a patient who's not under anaesthetic.
EPSTEIN: You didn’t answer my question. Is it a test of your power, whether you can get it into the campaign-
LEIGH: You should make that as my number one KPI! But it's also really important to see this right across the profession. And so, there's still work going on within hospitals to ensure the doctors wash their hands every time they touch an inflection point. In part, that's because it's really unpleasant to wash your hands - even when you're not using chlorine wash - many, many times a day. So washing your hands is nowhere near as pleasant for a doctor as having access to anaesthetics, which is one of those revolutions which was good for doctors and good for patients.
EPSTEIN: I've never heard it quite that phrased that way. Happy Handwashing Day. Thank you.
LEIGH: Happy Handwashing Day, Raf.
EPSTEIN: Andrew Leigh, Labor MP of course for Fenner - that's one of the seats in the ACT. Randomistas is his book, and it is Global Handwashing Day.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.