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The Global Handwashing Partnership

Handwashing with soap – where’s the real story?

February 14, 2019

By Carolyn Moore, Global Handwashing Partnership

Because I work in handwashing advocacy, my friends, family, and colleagues love to alert me when handwashing pops up in the news. This week, I’ve received a flurry of emails related to a moment when  US-based news host, Peter Hegseth, claimed on air that he hasn’t washed his hands in ten years.

While it was disheartening to hear this from someone with such a large platform, it was an important reminder on why we’re so committed to advocating for handwashing. We can’t take for granted that everyone understands the importance of handwashing with soap. Handwashing is one of the most important things we can do – here are a few of the things I wish were talked about more.

Handwashing with soap prevents disease.

When we wash our hands with soap, the soap removes germs from our hands. This prevents those germs from entering our bodies and making us sick. Handwashing with soap can prevent a wide range of diseases, from the common cold to potentially life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia and the flu. It can also save lives – evidence shows that clean birth practices like handwashing with soap can give newborns a 44% better rate of survival

While there are still other ways to get sick, handwashing is a critical, and feasible, way to reduce our risks. The research base is unequivocal that handwashing protects our health (in 2017 alone, the GHP rounded up more than 100 studies on the importance of handwashing with soap).  When we bypass the sink after using the toilet or before eating, we miss out on those protective benefits.

Handwashing isn’t only to protect ourselves.

Even if we skip handwashing and manage to avoid getting sick- what about the other people in our lives?

Every day, most people have hundreds or thousands of opportunities to spread germs to others. Writing this in the morning, I have already lost track of all the times my hands may have spread germs to someone else. I high fived someone in my exercise class, held on to the same pole as someone else on the bus, shared breakfast with my husband, and shook hands with a colleague in a meeting. Most of us simply can’t remember everything we touch, but we can remember the critical times to wash our hands.

By washing our hands at these times, (for example after using the bathroom, and before cooking or eating), we can reduce the risk of everyday contact making us sick. This is a simple way to avoid infecting others and becomes particularly important when interacting with people at higher risk, like young children, older people, and people with certain health conditions.

Lack of handwashing can- and does- lead to very real losses.

While there has been a lot of news coverage about Hegseth’s unwashed hands, I often wish there were more coverage of the tragic losses that take place every day. Let’s look at just two of the diseases that handwashing is known to prevent – pneumonia and diarrhea.

According to the Global Pneumonia and Diarrhea Progress Report, pneumonia and diarrhea cause nearly a quarter of deaths of children under five. In 2017, nearly 5.7 million children died before their fifth birthday. This means that more than twice as many children died of pneumonia and diarrhea in a single year than there are people living in Washington, DC. This information is not common knowledge – in this year’s letter from Bill and Melinda Gates, even those global health leaders expressed initial surprise at learning how many children die from these causes.

Handwashing with soap can prevent 47% of diarrheal diseases, and 16% of respiratory infections like pneumonia. Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by ensuring that people know the importance of handwashing; have access to soap, water, and a place to wash their hands; and develop proper handwashing habits. At the Global Handwashing Partnership, we’re proud to bring together partners who work every day to make this a reality.

Handwashing isn’t a given, but we can change this.

Handwashing with soap simply isn’t happening enough. Around the world, only an estimated 19% of people wash their hands with soap after contact with excreta. Globally, rates of household access to a place to wash hands range from nearly 100% to less than 10%. Even medical professionals aren’t perfect– only about 40% are estimated to clean their hands at all critical times.

There are some immediate things we can all do to change this. First, wash your hands with soap at all critical times, and encourage others to do the same. Make sure that there is a good place to wash hands (stocked with soap and with water available), in your home, school, or workplace. Finally, public health and development organizations from all sectors should continue to promote effective handwashing behavior change in research, policy, programs, and advocacy.

To learn more about how to advocate for handwashing behavior change, visit our advocacy page and advocacy resources.

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