“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In 1736, the year that Benjamin Franklin first penned those words, he lost his 4-year-old son to smallpox. The now-eradicated disease was a leading cause of death in the 18th century. More than a hundred years would pass before Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis would discover how true Franklin’s aphorism was — that an “ounce of prevention” in washing one’s hands could save lives by preventing the spread of disease.

Although Semmelweis started requiring doctors to wash their hands in 1846 and famed nurse Florence Nightingale also began championing the practice a few years later, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a concerted effort to promote hand washing as a way to protect yourself and your family from disease. These days, the CDC distills its advice into one mandate — wash your hands for at least 20 seconds — yet only 1 in 20 of us washes up well enough to keep viruses at bay.

We need to realize that hand washing is the single most effective weapon in the fight against illnesses ranging from the flu to the new coronavirus strain spreading in China.

The CDC says effective hand washing follows these five steps:

1. Wet your hands with clean, running water. Warm or cold, doesn’t matter. Then take a pump of hand soap or rub some bar soap on.

2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.

3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. You can hum “Happy Birthday” all the way through twice to time yourself.

4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry them.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? However, “studies have put the average hand-washing time at about six seconds, less than half of what is recommended by global-health guidelines,” Dr. James Hamblin wrote this week in The Atlantic.

You don’t have to settle for being average.

Let’s commit to washing our hands properly every time — before, during and after preparing food, and before eating; before and after caring for a sick loved one or treating a wound; after using the toilet or helping a child do so; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after touching an animal or its food; and after handling garbage or feces. (If there are no hand washing facilities available, at least rub up with hand sanitizer for 20 seconds.)

Washing up properly could be the ounce of prevention that keeps you and your family healthy for years to come.

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