Yesterday was Global Hand Washing Day! Before you scoff at yet another “International _____ Day” consider this fact: diarrhea and respiratory tract infections are by far the biggest killer of children around the word. The simple act of a child washing her hands with soap and water dramatically reduces her chances of getting diarrhea or pneumonia. It is also a very inexpensive global health intervention.
Improved hygiene and sanitation must play a key role in the next stage. The benefits can be enormous, much bigger than is typically realized. After all, diarrhea and pneumonia are the two leading killers of children, accounting for almost 30% of under-five deaths globally, that is, more than two million lives lost each year! Nearly 90% of those tragic and unnecessary deaths of young children occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Vaccines can help, but improved hygiene and sanitation are also vital, and therefore key to meeting the Millennium Development Goal of cutting the child mortality rate by at least two-thirds by 2015.
There are several ways to reduce the incidence of diarrhoea and pneumonia: access to safe water, sanitation (toilets), and personal hygiene, notably hand-washing with soap. They all count; they all save lives; and they should all become absolutely routine in a world that can explore Mars, connect 6 billion mobile subscribers, and unravel the mysteries of the human genome. Yet WASH — Water, Sanitation and Hygiene — involve human systems not just technological ones. We have to make our human systems work better!
Of all of the parts of WASH, fittingly, it is hand-washing with soap that is the single most cost-effective part, indeed one of the greatest health bargains on the planet. The great 19th century doctor Ignaz Semmelweis taught medical professions that their failure to scrub their hands between patients was actually infecting — and killing — the mothers under their care for child birth. The doctors pooh-poohed his advice, literally driving him to despair. 150 years later we have absolutely no excuse. The science, the logic, and the century-plus of experience are overwhelming: washing our hands helps keep our loved ones and ourselves alive!
The impacts of hand washing go far beyond health. New studies suggest that hand washing promotion in schools can play a role in reducing absenteeism among primary school children. In China, Colombia and Egypt primary school absenteeism due to diarrhea or and respiratory infections dropped between 20% and 50% as a result of better hand washing practices. Of course separate and safe toilets for schoolgirls help with the number of girls attending schools.
Here’s UNICEF with a video from Haiti on the benefits of washing your hands with soap and water.