Handwashing is a simple act of hygiene that can prevent us from numerous health risks. This is fundamental to fighting under-nutrition, reducing child mortality, overcoming antibiotic resistance, and advancing access to education. Research says handwashing with soap can reduce the risk of diarrheal disease by up to 47 per cent (Curtis, V & Cairncross, S, 2003).
In schools, often students complain about absence of soaps for handwashing. Looking at this fact, BRAC's water sanitation and hygiene programme initiated an event called 'Soap Drive.' Within four months since June 2015, 1,757 schools participated where students enthusiastically participated by bringing one soap to the school. An amazing number of 217,313 soap deposits were recorded in these schools for use of the students all year long.
According to World Health Organisation and UNICEF, only 65 per cent of hospitals in low and middle income countries have access to soap and water! Each year, there are 1.7 billion cases of childhood diarrhoea. Diarrhoea may be a minor inconvenience in some places, but in many countries like ours, it kills. Water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions can prevent at least 860,000 child deaths from under-nutrition each year.
Ensuring handwashing practice needs behaviour change, a practice that is considered necessary by but not practised by many.
15 October is Global Handwashing Day, observed all around the world in over 100 countries, with people making records of handwashing together, and rallies and seminars taking place every year since 2008. Bangladesh is also among these countries to celebrate this day every year along with National Sanitation Month. This year the theme is "Raise a Hand for Hygiene". Stakeholders in this sector participate very actively reach broader audience. Soap companies also take the opportunity to get involved in the festivity; in 2010 Bangladesh 52,970 students washed their hands simultaneously and set a world record (Unilever/Lifebuoy, 2010). This year Bangladesh is preparing for the big event all over the country. Among many other celebrations, BRAC will organise handwashing event in 65,000 villages through their WASH Committees, where handwashing demonstrations will take place simultaneously at 11:00am.
All this made me ponder, students are happy to bring soaps, no one is arguing about importance of washing hands, so question is why are we often sceptical of handwashing? With all this festivity and events are we confining handwashing as occasions only?
Any change takes time; we just have to make sure the effort continues to make handwashing a universal practice to minimise the deaths caused by this.
Some Evidence Specific to Handwashing with Soap (Fact Sheet) - From: Evidence base: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Interventions Literature Review: September 2010, Peter van Maanen, WASH Section, UNICEF:
l Handwashing at critical times including before eating or preparing food and after using the toilet can reduce diarrhoea rates by almost 40 per cent (3IE 2009).
l Handwashing with soap can reduce the incidence of acute respiratory infections (ARI's) by around 23 per cent (WELL 2007).
l One study assessed the effect of hand washing promotion with soap on the incidence of pneumonia and found that children younger than 5 years in households that received plain soap and hand washing promotion had a 50% lower incidence of pneumonia than controls.
l 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 per cent (BMJ 2009).
l Rates of handwashing around the world are low. Observed rates of handwashing with soap at critical moments - i.e., before handling food and after using the toilet range from zero per cent to 34 per cent (Scott et al 2003).
Sabrina Shahidullah is working as senior sector specialist of BRAC's water sanitation and hygiene programme (WASH) programme