In the wake of the recent outbreak of Hepatitis A in nearby Beaver County, the Allegheny County Health Department has relaunched a public education campaign to promote handwashing as an effective way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The campaign provides free handwashing posters for use in public restrooms. Displayed inside stall doors and above urinals to provide convenient reading material for a captive audience, the posters contain parodies of classic literature that communicate the importance of handwashing in an interesting and amusing way people are likely to remember.

The latest posters, Volume III of a series titled ‘The Literary Classics – A New Kind of Reading Material for Public Restrooms’, were released in 2002 and are parodies of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer‘ by Mark Twain, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles‘ by Arthur Conan Doyle, and ‘Emma‘ by Jane Austen.

The first two volumes, released in 1997 and 1998, contained parodies of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens; ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville; ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell; ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by L. Frank Baum; ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson; and ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ by Judy Blume, a contemporary author who granted permission to use her work.

The posters have been shown to significantly increase handwashing rates. A 1997 survey found 67 percent of women and 50 percent of men washed hands with soap and water in restrooms displaying the posters, compared to 52 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in restrooms with no posters.

In a 2002 survey, the health department found that handwashing rates still remain low in public restrooms with no posters. Fifty-six percent of women and 40 percent of men washed their hands with soap and water, 23 percent of men and 28 percent of women used no soap and only water, while a shocking 36 percent of men and 11 percent of women walked right by the sink and didn’t even bother trying.

The health department suspects some people think using water and no soap is good enough because the percentage who do is just as high in restrooms with its original posters reminding them, “…to please wash your hands.” For that reason, the posters released in 2002 read, “…please wash your hands with soap and water.”

Besides Hepatitis A, handwashing helps prevent many other infectious diseases, ranging from the common cold to diarrheal illnesses that are sometimes deadly.

The posters are available for use in any building with public or employee restrooms and may be requested by calling the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-ACHD.

The handwashing campaign and posters have gained national attention for the health department, which received the 1999 J. Howard Beard Award for excellence in public health practice at the local level from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.