The hand disinfectant, a Swiss invention

by Nicole Duprat, France

The Covid-19 pandemic puts the widely unknown deed of Dr Didier Pittet into perspective. This infectologist from the Geneva University Hospitals (Hôpitaux Universitaires Genève) was the first in the world to use the hand disinfectant.

A saving gesture

Thierry Crouzet, a French writer from Sète (southern France), reported on this medical odyssey in his book "Le geste qui sauve" (Clean Hands Save Lives), published by L'Âge d'Homme. A simple question finally leads to the production of the hand disinfectant: "How can medical personnel clean their hands more effectively?” In the course of his medical studies, during which he specialised in infectious diseases, the epidemiologist at the Hôpitaux Universitaires Genève (HUG) became interested in infections associated with intravenous catheters, which are responsible for 20 to 30 million hospital-acquired infections per year. This is the theme of this easy-to-read book and offers us an inspiring story. It is also worth mentioning that Thierry Crouzet ceded his rights to the “CleanHandsSaveLives.org” Foundation and that a free version of the book is available on the Internet.

This invention is just 21 years old

In the 1990s, the "doctor with the clean hands", as he is also known, became a specialist for infectious diseases at HUG. He fought the diseases that patients get infected with through their stay in medical institutions, i.e. the diseases that are related to medical treatment. He made Pasteur's question his own: "Instead of dealing with how to kill the microbes in the wounds, it would be wise not to bring them into the wound in the first place. This painstaking endeavour eventually led to a formula for a disinfectant that was developed with the help of the English hospital pharmacist, William Griffith.
   
As simple as the idea is, it represents a revolution in the health system: Soap that was used for repeated hand-washing by the nursing staff; or which was used without sufficient water in poor countries with no significant infrastructure, is replaced. Now it was a question of being able to produce the disinfectant solution or disinfectant gel easily and cheaply anywhere in the world. Since 1905 it has been known that alcohol is an effective bactericide and virucide, but that it must be mixed with water or glycerine so that it can adhere to the skin to kill the unwanted germs.

Hurdles to be overcome

However, it was not be an easy task to convince the world to use this product. Professor Pittet had to go door to door around the world to introduce the sanitizer and to convince institutions to use the gel instead of soap. This unexpected innovation is known as the "Geneva Model" and is freeing poor countries from the problem of water shortage. In Muslim countries there have been difficulties as well because, as the name suggests, the liquid contains alcohol. It was therefore necessary to change the production by using isopropyl alcohol. In Russia, some people drank the solution, so an emetic was added. In order to keep the price low, Professor Pittet had to deal with pharmaceutical manufacturers and convince them of the disinfectant, just as he had to stop the big pharmaceutical companies from enriching themselves at the expense of the sick!

To serve the public

Just as it is helpful at the time of the pandemic, the invention and distribution of the disinfectant gel has saved millions of lives. When he invented it 21 years ago, Professor Pittet could have patented this product, sold it, and become rich. Especially now, his discovery would have made him a multi-billionaire. But he preferred not to patent his discovery for the benefit of mankind. For this, he donated the patent to the WHO so that the drug can be produced locally throughout the world at a reasonable price. "The hand hygiene is too simple and too important to be patented “, he said in a report on French television (TF1). The infectologist also used the report to criticize the massive increase in the price of hand disinfectants in some countries. He praised France for having set a price limit for disinfectants. He sharply criticized, "It costs 1 euro. To suddenly sell the product for 20 euros is disrespectful “.
   
"Contrary to money, mutual aid is unlimited; it is the currency of abundance." Or: "He who gives, gives. That is economy in the name of peace."
   
An extract from the book confirms this: "He is the angel of giving..." Didier Pittet has invented a new phrase of courtesy and respect. "I wash my hands to protect you", writes Thierry Crouzet.
   
His approach to the fight against hospital-acquired infections is being developed at HUG with the help of the WHO. Around 70,000 people are affected every year in Switzerland, of whom 2,000 die. In this way, about eight million lives can be saved worldwide every year. Because of his work in infection prevention and for his work in the United Kingdom, he was elevated to the rank of Commander of the Order of the British Kingdom by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2007. The British Crown has not bestowed this honour on any other Swiss citizen for over 400 years. Yet, that does not make him haughty.
   
In Petit Lancy, Didier Pittet is known for his open and benevolent nature. He, who was for many years’ president of the church council of the Christ-Roi parish, is a child of Lancy.
   
An internationally recognised medical authority, he still is full of generosity and his reputation extends far beyond the boundaries of the parish. The French writer Thierry Crouzet is not mistaken. In his book, he wonderfully recounts this universally welcomed initiative, dedicating his work to the one who gave mankind the key to the gel that daily saves millions of lives around the world.
   
To follow this medical adventure of Doctor Pittet means that it is possible to live a new form of humanity that promises a shift from predatory capitalism to an economy for peace.    •
 


1 Crouzet, Thierry. Le geste qui sauve, Des millions de vie, peut-être la vôtre, L'Âge d'Homme, Geneva 2014; Clean Hands Save Lives, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
2 Didier Pittet is head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at HUG Geneva, honorary professor at Imperial College (London), Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Medical School of the Fu (Shanghai), and honorary member of the Academy of Sciences in Russia and the Académie de Chirurgie française.

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