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This simplest act can make the world a better place

October 15, 2020

By: Nadine Leslie

If you were lucky enough to grow up in a place that has ample clean water, hopefully your parents and teachers instilled in you good handwashing habits. Because right now, there is little that will pay off more for you and your family in the on-going battle against COVID-19, than putting on a mask with clean hands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the clear importance of clean water, not only to help keep individuals healthy, but to stop the spread of the virus through contact. Yet today, so many communities around the world do not have access to water.

Even once a safe and effective vaccine is found, experts say COVID-19 will become endemic. With COVID here to stay, so must hand hygiene. Proper handwashing helps to prevent and curtail a remarkable amount of illness and disease. Handwashing with soap is a vital hygiene pillar of public health, development and economic growth.

This simple cost-effective solution contributes to improved lives and livelihoods with global impact. Conversely, the lack of access to handwashing facilities that include soap and safe water contributes to injustices in health and safety, nutrition, education and equality. Heightened understanding of the critical role of hand hygiene has led the UN to consider making October 15, Global Handwashing Day, an official annual observance.

Access to clean water is the foundational first step in making sure that good health happens. That’s why my organization, Suez, supports nongovernmental organizations like WorldServe International, Assist International, Water For People and the Waterboys to increase global access to clean and safe water for hygiene and drinking water, too.

A multitude of ills can be prevented and solved with effective hand hygiene. Here are a critical 5:

1) Health. Access to handwashing with soap is the easy, effective and affordable do-it-yourself protection that prevents infections and saves lives. It’s critical to safe and dignified health care for both patients and staff. Yet 45% of healthcare facilities in low-resource countries lack basic water services at points of care, and sanitation is not much better, leaving bacteria to easily spread. We must do better.

2) Nutrition. Handwashing with soap keeps the body able to absorb nutrients in food. The WHO estimates that 50% of child undernutrition is due to repeated diarrhea and intestinal infections caused by poor Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) conditions.[i] Diarrhea depletes the body of nutrition and is a leading cause of child death, claiming nearly 300,000 lives under age 5 each year. The World Health Organization, WHO, estimates that undernutrition in all its forms accounts for 45% of all deaths of children under 5 annually. In 44 countries, at least 30% of children under 5 are stunted, leaving them with lifelong cognitive and physical impairment, another tragic product of undernutrition.

This nutritional harm is costly in its human toll and the massive $3.5 trillion in healthcare costs and lost productivity annually.

3) Education. Handwashing with soap is a foundational component of healthy students and educational achievement. Stunting impedes a child’s cognitive development before that first day of school. Then globally, children miss a cumulative 272 million schooldays each year due to diarrhea. Handwashing with soap can help reduce absenteeism caused by diarrhea, influenza and conjunctivitis by up to 50%. Schools with WASH programs can expect up to a 50% reduction in absenteeism when compared to schools without WASH.

Handwashing, as well as appropriate sanitation facilities are especially important for girls as they get older. Sadly, when menstrual hygiene is not manageable at school, far too many may miss up to 20% of school days, or drop-out, leaving them more susceptible to child marriage, lives of poverty, and even trafficking.

As children return to school during the CVOID-19 pandemic, 818 million children will be without handwashing facilities in schools (44% of schools), 698 million children will (37% of schools) lack basic sanitation and 584 million children (31% of schools) will lack safe drinking water services. Schools need to provide handwashing stations with soap near toilets and food areas.

4) Equity. Access to handwashing facilities contributes to greater gender and socioeconomic equity. Women and girls, charged with caring for home and children, cannot keep themselves and their families safe without the ability to wash their hands at home. Yet 40% cannot. Students and adults with disabilities need accessible handwashing stations and soap, particularly as they are more likely to touch the floors and walls of latrines. People living in rural poverty have less access to handwashing facilities.

Certainly, everyone deserves the right to keep oneself as healthy and productive as they can, for themselves, their families and their communities.

5) Economic Impact. Handwashing with soap is remarkably cost-effective, from reducing healthcare costs to generating employment opportunities. A 2013 study found that in some developing countries, annual net costs of diarrhea and pneumonia incur costs of more than $12 billion per year, while estimated costs of a national handwashing program would be less than $100 million and bring $2 to $5 billion in savings.

But the highest price of all, is the mother who loses a child to a preventable infection due to a lack of access to safe water and soap. That’s just not right. We can and must do better.

About the author:

Nadine Leslie, the former leader of health and safety for 90,000 global employees at Suez, is now the CEO of Suez’ North America operations.

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