Photo/Illutration Handwashing helps prevent infections. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

I'm washing my hands with greater frequency with each passing day. But what's frustrating is that there's no way to know for sure how often I need to do so to protect myself from the coronavirus.

This sense of uncertainty has made me start looking at my own hands and fingernails with suspicion.

In today's world, everyone knows the effectiveness of handwashing in preventing infections. But in the history of medicine, this only became common knowledge in the latter half of the 19th century.

Until Hungarian-born obstetrician/gynecologist Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865) recommended it, handwashing had never been practiced, even by medical professionals. 

Semmelweis was specializing in preventing puerperal fever (childbed fever) among postpartum women when the soiled hands and fingers of the doctors attending the patients caught his attention.

He discovered a high incidence of fever among women who were examined by doctors who had just conducted an autopsy or surgery.

Urging his colleagues to wash their hands, Semmelweis insisted on stocking obstetrical clinics with soap, nail clippers and chlorine water.

But back then, even the concept of pathogens was shrouded in mystery, and Semmelweis was attacked ruthlessly by the entire medical community for effectively calling ob/gyn specialists "murderers."

He was banished from the university where he worked and died a broken man.

But he earned the moniker of "The Father of Protection against Infectious Diseases" posthumously, according to Wakao Minami's book titled "Ishi Semmelweis no Higeki" (Tragedy of Doctor Semmelweis).

At my place of work, there is a notice reminding everyone to disinfect their hands upon entering the premises. 

But looking at the bottle of hand sanitizer placed at the entrance, I ask myself: With an indefinite number of people handling this container, how can I be sure this is virus-free?

My doubts and suspicions have no end.  

Poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) famously lamented, "No matter how hard I work/ My life gets no easier/ I stare at my hands."

No matter how many times I wash my hands, I still can't be sure if they are clean enough. And I stare at my hands all the time.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 28

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.