Graduation Handshakes Don't Pose Too Great a Public Health Risk

May 23, 2011, 6:53 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

file Courtesy Johns Hopkins. Lead investigator Dr. David Bishai at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health swabs a school official's hand to look for harmful bacteria after graduation handshakes.

Headed to a graduation? Go ahead. Shake the dean’s hand. A new study by researchers at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, published recently in the Journal of School Nursing, finds that hand-shaking isn’t necessarily as bacteria-infested as commonly thought.

A team of researchers examined the risk of acquiring highly infectious bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) through shaking hands at graduation ceremonies across Maryland. The researchers swabbed participants’ hands before and immediately following graduations to identify any infectious strains, and found 93 percent of samples contained non harmful bacteria.

“A single handshake offers only a small risk of acquiring harmful bacteria,” said David Bishai, a professor at the school, in a Johns Hopkins release. “Our study indicates when shaking hands, the rate of hand contamination among graduating students to be 100 times lower than the 17 percent rate observed among health workers caring for patients known to be harboring MRSA.”

You’re less likely to catch MRSA at graduation, say the researchers, because a handshake offers a very brief exposure and graduating students are less likely than hospital patients to be infected with serious bacteria. But keep shaking. The researchers say subsequent handshakes may rid acquired bacteria from your hands.

And despite the low risk of acquiring the bacteria studies, don’t say no to hand sanitizer. Says Bishai: “Individuals who already engage in hand hygiene after handshaking should not be dissuaded from this practice.”

One other option: Pandemic flu a couple of years back gave some attention in the U.S. to greeting by bumping elbows, a custom often practiced in countries where shaking hands could pose a life-threatening health risk—for example, in countries impacted by the Ebola virus. This Facebook page offers some elbow-bumping etiquette tips.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.