The least that you can do to contribute to a better world

The least that you can do to contribute to a better world

On 15 October - Global Handwashing Day, Antoinette Kome, SNV's Global Sector Coordinator for Water, Sanitation & Hygiene, explains why handwashing with soap is important: "Because over 1.5 million children under five die each year as a result of diarrhoea; it is actually the second most common cause of child deaths worldwide."

"Many of you will know the figures about the importance of handwashing with soap. But, for those who don’t, here are some key statistics from the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council: Over 1.5 million children under five die each year as a result of diarrhoea. It is the second most common cause of child deaths worldwide. Handwashing with soap at critical times – including before eating or preparing food and after using the toilet – can reduce diarrhoea incidence by more than 40%. Pneumonia is the number one cause of mortality among children under five years old, taking the lives of an estimated 1.8 million children per year. Handwashing with soap can reduce the incidence of pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections (ARIs) by around 23%. Handwashing can be a critical measure in controlling pandemic outbreaks of respiratory infections. Several studies carried out during the 2006 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) suggest that washing hands more than 10 times a day can cut the spread of the respiratory virus by 55%. Unfortunately , all this stands in huge contrast with the number of people that practice handwashing with soap.

In our recent baseline survey on sanitation and hygiene in rural areas across nine countries, we’ve found that between 0-19% of households have a defined place for handwashing, an indicator for sustained practice. In case you’re thinking that doesn’t sound that bad, only one country reached 19%, while in the vast majority of countries less than 5% of households have a place for handwashing – and only a small percentage of these use soap! The challenge of promoting behaviour change in handwashing is enormous. To illustrate this, one of the world’s leading groups working on handwashing, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, had a 37% success rate with a dedicated state-of-the-art hand washing programme in India. After just one year, this success rate had dropped to 29%. Other organisations have tried to link handwashing with soap to a device. Something fun and attractive that can act as a trigger for action, but we have not yet seen breakthrough figures there.

The lack of handwashing with soap is not limited to rural villages in the global south. Take your average office, workshop, restaurant (!!) and so on. Even in a meeting with only WASH professionals I would not care to bet that everybody washes their hands with soap after using the toilet. And believe me, the trigger for action in some of those conference hotels is really aspirational. In a certain way, it makes me both angry and impatient, and, in fact, I feel that we all should get angry and impatient about it. Handwashing is not just for yourself, it’s for the people around you. Think about all the people (just like you and me) who don’t take the trouble to wash their hands after defecation. When you think about it, it’s just disgusting. All these people going around in our living environment with dirty hands. They touch the office door handle, which we then need to open. They hold on to the seats, straps or handrails in the bus, and we have no choice but to hold on as well, otherwise we fall over. The challenges in our world today are so many and they are so big, (think Ebola!), that it’s easy to feel that as individuals we can do very little. It’s often difficult to decide where to put our energy and effort, or even to imagine that our individual effort will make a difference. However, that does not apply to handwashing with soap after defecation. This is one area where such a small effort can have such huge collective benefits that nobody should be excused from making an effort (except people living in conditions of extreme water scarcity and those under the age of five).

Therefore my slogan for this day is: The least anybody can do to contribute to their family, their community and a better world in general is to wash their hands with soap after the toilet!"