Washing Hands = Saving Lives: A Global Handwashing Day Dialogue

October 22, 2012

A child dies every thirty seconds from diarrhoea, while diarrhoea and respiratory illness are responsible for two-thirds of child deaths around the world.  However, these deadly diseases can be simply avoided by practicing proper hand hygiene. Hand washing with soap has been shown to reduce the prevalence of diarrhoeal disease by almost 50% and respiratory illness by 30%.

Global Handwashing Day was founded in 2008 during the International Year of Sanitation that had been declared by the United Nations General Assembly.  Taking place on October 15th of every year, Global Handwashing Day was organized to bring attention to this often overlooked topic, which nevertheless can offer genuine and sustainable improvements to people’s lives around the world.  Each year over 200 million people in 100 countries meet together to raise awareness and promote the washing of hands with soap.

In celebration of Global Handwashing Day and in order to raise awareness about hand hygiene, the Irish Forum for Global Health (IFGH) with support from Concern Worldwide, held a Health Dialogues seminar entitled Back to Basics: Washing Hands = Saving Lives: Handwashing and its role in achieving Public Health and Nutrition Outcomes.  This Health Dialogue brought together stakeholders from academic institutions, NGOs, private and public sectors to share knowledge on the issue.  At this dialogue were presenters from Concern Worldwide, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Glanta Ltd, Unilever and the Health Protection and Surveillance Centre.

This year the focus for Global Handwashing Day was the use of soap during handwashing.  The use of soap to promote hand hygiene, as opposed to only water, is absolutely vital.  Hands can transmit disease between people, or from a surface to a person.  As such, hands are vectors for disease in this way and must be sanitized.  A person washing his or her hands with soap can kill the disease agents and prevent these deadly infections.   As Sarah McDonald from Unilever/Lifebuoy mentioned over 90% of households have access to soap in the developing world, and the promotion of handwashing with soap can save an enormous number of lives.

One of the largest problems for hand hygiene promotion is the knowledge gap that exists.  People in the developing world are aware that handwashing can offer benefits, but refrain from changing their practices.  Even though these WASH interventions have been shown to not only affect obvious health outcomes, but carry nutrition benefits as well.  Frank Flachenburg of Concern explained the difficulties he has come across promoting hand hygiene in Africa.  While handwashing has been shown to be the most efficacious among the water, sanitation and hygiene interventions it has not been a primary focus because local people often do not desire hygiene information, and many NGOs prefer offering tangible hardware rather than education.

However, inadequate hand hygiene is not just a problem for people from lesser developed countries. As explained by Dr Robert Cunney, many places in Europe and North America still struggle with spreading disease in hospitals and health clinics due to poor hand hygiene.  Although Irish doctors have a high compliance rate – 80% – compared to other countries when it comes to washing hands at critical times, diseases can still be spread.  In areas like hospitals where people are implicitly likely to be carrying disease pathogens it is most important to practice good hand hygiene.  Nevertheless, Dr Cunney said that the appearance of a hospital as a place that is clean and orderly psychologically primes a person to practice worse hygiene than if they were in a location that appeared dirtier.

In this regard Sean Bay, CEO of Glanta Ltd., described his new product SureWash, which uses interactive cameras to test whether a person is washing his or her hands correctly.  SureWash was designed to raise awareness about the correct method of handwashing to ensure that doctors, nurses and other medical staff reduce the possibility of cross-infection.   The product is currently being used in America, Australia and Europe with plans to promote hand hygiene worldwide.

The importance of proper handwashing in the developing world and at home is hard to overstate.  Sean Bay mentioned that in his opinion promotion of proper handwashing is “low-hanging fruit.”  People around the world already have access to water and soap, so all that is left to do is to change people’s practices, and promote good hand hygiene.  To this effect Global Handwashing Day is a success if it can increase awareness of proper handwashing, promote hand hygiene, and contribute in the fight against these easily preventable diseases.


Alex Bartoloni
Key Correspondent
Email: bartolap@tcd.ie

To access the powerpoint presentations from this event click here.
Visit our Flickr account to see pictures from the health dialogue
For more information on the KC team go to: http://www.keycorrespondents.org


World Bank/WSP Handwashing Handbook
http://globalhandwashing.org/ghw-day/about
http://www.lboro.ac.uk/well/resources/fact-sheets/fact-sheets-htm/Handwashing.htm

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