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Going Viral on the Importance of Clean Hands


Donna Gill Allen, a nurse who also teaches nursing fundamentals and health sciences to high school students, has seen a lot of infectious conditions over the years. But she’d never seen anything turn as ragingly viral as a Facebook post she made earlier this year about a simple science experiment that graphically proves the importance of handwashing. Reposted at first by friends and then by strangers, it was ultimately shared and liked and commented on thousands of times on various sites.

The Cape Fear High School teacher, who’d simply reposted a two-year-old post of hers to remind herself of the experiment, was astounded and amused. She was also a little abashed because the post, including effectively gross photos, was one she’d seen on a site where teachers share ideas and, as people do all the time, she’d simply and innocently reposted it. This time around, though, her repost went crazy.

What’s the experiment?

You have three pieces of white bread that you put into sealed baggies. One piece of bread you touch only with a gloved hand. It goes in the controlled baggie. Another piece you put in with your bare hands after you’ve washed them thoroughly. It goes in the clean hands baggie. The last piece gets passed around by all the kids in the class before they’ve washed their hands and then it gets put in the dirty hands baggie. Then you just wait and see how the bread changes over several days.

In the Facebook pictures, the bread in the first two baggies still looks good. The bread in the dirty hands baggie is covered with mold.

The pictures in the post were made by an elementary school teacher. Young kids’ hands can be really dirty. We tried it in my class and our bread wasn’t as gross. My students are older so their hands are a little bit cleaner!

Could you still tell a difference?

Oh yes. The bread in the dirty-hands baggie was kind of green but it wasn’t as bad as the bread handled by the little kids. I didn’t think about taking pictures.

How did you come to post about the experiment on Facebook?

It came up on my feed and I reposted it so I could remember to do it again with my students. I thought, oh yeah, I’ve got to do that again.

When did you realize your post had gone viral?

My daughter said, ‘Mom, Ashton Kutcher put your post on his Facebook page! Did you know you’ve gone viral?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ The post was also on ellenNation (a popular posting site). My daughter was just laughing at me. I contacted the teacher whose post I’d reposted and told her and she couldn’t believe it either. Places like Love What Matters and newspapers started contacting me to see if they could repost the post. I said yes but made sure they credited the teacher I’d gotten it from.

What did you think about the whole thing?

The other teacher and I were laughing and laughing. We couldn’t believe this thing went crazy like this. Who would have thought?

Let’s talk about the experiment itself. Was it a good lesson for your students?

Oh yes. They always hear me during my infection control unit talking about how important it is to wash your hands well. I teach my kids the skills they need to be certified nursing assistants and we do our clinicals in a nursing home. They give the patients baths, they feed them, they take care of them. It is critically important for the students to wash their hands properly so they avoid spreading germs.

How should people wash their hands?

Everybody should wash their hands like this: Rinse them, then put soap on – you get a better lather if your hands are already moist. Then rub your hands with the soap for at least 20 seconds. Then rinse them well with the fingertips down so anything that’s on your hands doesn’t roll back up to your elbows.

That’s some serious handwashing.

One of my former students told me, ‘Every time I wash my hands, I think of you.’ The kids will laugh at first. I demonstrate how to do it, then I test them on it. When they take their test to be a certified nursing assistant, their handwashing technique is one of the five skills they’re tested on.

What made you go into teaching?

I was doing home health and hospice and was on call a lot. I also volunteered with the youth group at my church and I really enjoyed it. A friend asked if I’d ever considered teaching. I thought about it and as it happened Cape Fear High had an opening and I decided to try it. I fell in love with it and with the kids. I’m still a licensed nurse; I have to be to teach what I do. But I love teaching. I figure I am making a difference in kids’ lives.