Why have a day dedicated to handwashing?

By Cameron Geasey, Partnership Communications, Child Health Now

Global Handwashing Day is 15 October.  Does the world really need an entire day dedicated to a topic as basic as handwashing?  The answer is very clear from the statistics—yes, it does.

According to the official website for Global Handwashing Day, “Ingraining the habit of handwashing could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention.”

Diarrhoea causes 9 per cent of all deaths of children under age five and pneumonia causes 17 per cent.  Washing hands with soap can reduce a person's risk of diarrhoea by as much as 50 per cent and their risk of respiratory tract infections like pneumonia by as much as 45 per cent.

In Nepal, a 44 per cent reduction in neonatal deaths was achieved simply by teaching trained birth attendants and mothers to wash with soap before touching the baby.

In Nepal, a 44 per cent reduction in neonatal deaths was achieved simply by teaching trained birth attendants and mothers to wash with soap before touching the baby.

Working with local health volunteers

In Myanmar, San San Myaing is a local health volunteer who works with World Vision to train members of her community, promoting hygiene knowledge and bringing transformations into the lives of the children. The 35-year-old mother has witnessed the improvement of maternal and child health in her community through community health education sessions, behaviour change discussions and hygiene promotion events.

In a 2012 interview, she said, “I’ve learnt about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and the important role of immunisations in child health. I’ve realised that the simple thing like [following proper] handwashing steps can prevent many diseases such as diarrhoea, sneezes and colds.”

She continued: “Every week, I meet community members who have under-five children in their family and teach them hygienic practices and share health knowledge … Now they are following hygienic practices. The one who used to rely on home remedies for diarrhoea is now using oral rehydration solution. The pregnant mothers who were once afraid to visit doctors for antenatal care are now having proper health care.”

She concluded: “As the children and families are gaining health knowledge, they are able to improve their health status. Although, there were at least five or six children who have been hospitalised with severe diarrhoea every rainy season, no child has been hospitalised for last two years, their health knowledge has improved.”

The results of the work of people like San San Myaing go beyond reducing cases of diarrhoea, because they also teach community members about many other important topics such as nutrition.  However, her work is a good demonstration of how simple interventions, like handwashing, can make dramatic improvements in the lives and survival rate of children.

Much of World Vision's investment in water, sanitation and hygiene is in Africa.  In Ethiopia, a student named Abebech at Kurfo Gute Primary School said: "Last year, one student from each class started meeting with teacher Abebe to talk about sanitation and hygiene.  Later, we attended a five-day training on it from World Vision.”

Another student, named Adanech, continued the story, saying: "Before that training, I didn't know anything about the negative health effects of open defecation and not washing our hands.  When they told us we were eating and drinking feces, I said 'Wow, I've been doing that?' For me, the change was immediate.

The students went on to educate their classmates and families.  Adanech's family built a latrine with hand-washing facilities for themselves within a week after the training.

World Vision’s preferred method of spreading knowledge, changing behaviours and improving lives in communities is to work with local health volunteers and hygiene promoters who know the community and the people in it and have their trust.  These dedicated local residents can continue improving their communities long after World Vision has left.  They work individually with families to help them understand the importance of good hygiene practices, like how to construct appropriate latrines, how to wash hands in the right way at the right times, and how to use basic dish racks to keep dishes clean and sanitary. In extremely poor communities, where funds to purchase soap are limited, families can even use ash to clean hands and make them safe.

World Vision also works with water, sanitation and hygiene clubs in schools to set up handwashing stations and train children how to use them.

Scaling up the work

This work must go beyond World Vision, though.  Other organisations are also supporting local residents to spread health knowledge and so are some governments.  With the rise of cheap mobile technology such as low-cost smartphones, governments and organisations now have the ability to organise and empower large corps of dedicated local volunteers across even the remotest rural areas to spread the knowledge of simple solutions.

The world needs a Global Handwashing Day because simple solutions like handwashing have not yet become the norm in every family and every community.  On this Global Handwashing Day, World Vision encourages citizens and leaders around the world to remember the need to promote simple solutions and to help find ways to do this on a scale that is both massively widespread and intensely local in countries and communities around the world.