Global Handwashing Day is coming up on October 15, and events in its honor will be occurring all week. Children are a key focus of handwashing campaigns. Diarrhea continues as the second leading cause of death in kids under 5 years of age globally. Nearly one in every five child deaths, around 1.5 million a year, is due to diarrhea. It kills more children than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined - more than 4,000 children dying every day.
So, why Global Handwashing Day? Handwashing may be the single most cost-effective public health intervention ever. In a systematic review, Curtis and Cairncross (2003) documented major reductions in diarrheal disease morbidity from handwashing with soap - a range of 42-44% in the pooled studies. These interventions can deliver significant health improvements even when environmental services, such as piped water, are absent. Further, these interventions have staying power. That is, follow-up studies show that these interventions can have lasting effects on personal hygiene behaviors (i.e., people keep washing their hands long after the intervention is over).
There are some hardware components that can enable handwashing. Soap, for example, is an essential part of handwashing behavior - handwashing with water only has been found to provide little to no benefit. Alternative rubbing agents such as mud or ash, however, have been show to provide similar benefits as soap. Other enabling technologies for handwashing can include simple water saving devices that can be made at the local level and facilitate handwashing (e.g., tippy taps - see the photo above of Madagascar schoolgirls using one). For more information on these devices, see the Enabling Technologies for Handwashing Database.
We, the global we, are making progress on reducing child mortality from diarrhea. Let's keep that momentum going. Those in the DC area can join George Washington University in celebrating Global Handwashing Day this Monday, Oct. 17th from 12 - 2 pm! Interactive booths, a scavenger hunt, and food trucks will be in the Ross Hall Quad above the Foggy Bottom Metro station.
Jay Graham, PhD, MBA, MPH is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. He specializes in global environmental health, with a focus on international water supply, sanitation and hygiene development, and has worked in countries from Bolivia to Zambia.
I'm an avid washer; after I use the toilet, after I pet the cats, before I do anything with food. My husband doesn't understand this, and after 31 years of marriage I still have to remind him to wash up before dinner! Oddly enough, I'm the one who comes down with food-borne digestive illnesses more often -- probably because I eat a lot of pre-made food for lunch from the grocery store, while he religiously makes up turkey and swiss wraps for the week every Monday morning, and washes and slices his own veggies to put in them. Hmmmm...