By Erica Oakley, Humanitas Global Development
Simple hygienic practices, such as washing hands with soap and water, are essential to reducing the spread of diseases and infections. However, handwashing – especially with soap – is not strongly emphasized in many countries around the globe, resulting in millions suffering from preventable illness and death.
Today, handwashing is high on the international agenda as we mark the 5th anniversary of Global Handwashing Day with this year's theme: "Help More Children Reach Their 5th Birthday." According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diarrheal infections and acute respiratory infections –two of the highest causes of mortality in children under the age of 5 – can be greatly reduced through the simple act of handwashing. More than 1.87 million children die from related-diarrheal infections each year alone.
Consistent handwashing can lower these numbers as well as reduce the transmission of acute upper respiratory infections such as the common cold and acute lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis. Instilling the consistent use of handwashing, particularly after using the bathroom and before eating, could reduce the rate of infection by approximately 25 percent.
Global Handwashing Day, observed annually on October 15, was established in 2008 by the Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap (PPPHW) – a coalition of 13 international stakeholders, including UNICEF, USAID, the World Bank, FHI360, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and others with the aim to educate children around the world about the life-saving importance of hand-washing for disease prevention.
The Western world once also suffered from high rates of preventable deaths caused by poor hygiene practices. The hygiene movement begain in the 1800s – led by Austrian physician, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, considered the father of hand hygiene – who observed the correlation between handwashing and the spread of disease.
In the decades that followed, a joint effort by physicians, governments, private sector and civil society drastically reduced the transmission of diseases and viruses in the western world through educating the public in a variety of ways (such as the advertisement to the right).
Today, a similar hygiene movement needs to be promoted and administered in countries around the globe to ensure that behaviors and beliefs related to handwashing continue to change. This movement needs to begin with children so that it becomes a learned and practiced behavior.
However, hand washing isn’t just for children. The regular and consistent use of soap and water can reduce sickness in a household – ensuring that adults are able to work more days, which can translate into more money being brought into the household.
Governments, private sector, civil society, NGOs – all need to do their part to promote handwashing through working together and creating alliances, for a more effective and efficient impact. 2015 is around the corner, and in order to reach the target set by the MDGs, handwashing and sanitation needs to become an integral part of everyday life...for everyone. Handwashing is still the simplest and most cost-effective way to reduce sickness and save lives.