Global Handwashing Day: does it make sense?

During a recent visit to a Aged Care Center in Bathurst, Australia I picked up a brochure on Hand Hygiene in the health care system. This brochure highlights that “Hospital acquired infections can be life-threatening, especially for people with serious pre-existing conditions. They are a significant problem in our healthcare system… We know that improving hand hygiene among healthcare workers is the single most effective intervention to reduce the risk of healthcare associated infections in Australia”.
(To view a clearer graph, please click.)Looking at the national data by health care workers on the Hand Hygiene Initiative (The National Hand Hygiene Initiative Audit Two 2013) shows varying compliance rates across the various health care professions, on average around 70%.  An 11 country review**  published by the International Journal of Environmental research and Public Health in 2011, states that – of (observed) handwashing behavior –  on average only 17% of the mothers wash their hands with soap after having used the toilet, and 45% washes their hands without soap (water only).And yes, how many times I have seen in conferences/workshop in 5 star hotels that as soon as it’s time for a coffee or lunch break the majority of participants head directly to the restaurant. So all in all it makes sense.** Int. J. Environ. Res. & Public Health 2011, 8, 97-104; The Effect of Handwashing with Water or Soap on Bacterial Contamination of Hands, Maxine Burton, Emma Cobb, Peter Donachie, Gaby Judah, Val Curtis and Wolf-Peter Schmidt


Still, some of the current realities
According to recent global figures from UNICEF, 1,400 children under five still die every day from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene. According to UNICEF, diarrhoea remains the second largest cause of under-five mortality globally. With 600,000 children dying in each year and over 1.7 billion cases, diarrhoeal diseases are also associated with a higher risk of stunting (low weight for age and developmental delay) and take a huge toll on society. However, one of the simplest and most inexpensive barriers to infection is handwashing with soap.“The simple act of handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways to save children’s lives,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, global head of UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes.
According to the Knowledge, Attitude and Practice Study into Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in 24 Townships of Myanmar, October 2011, although 97% infants had been properly cleaned after defecation, only 19% of infant’s caretakers had properly disposed of the faeces into a latrine, and only 75% wash their hands with water and soap.  Furthermore, ninety-one per cent of adults were eating their meals with their fingers, but only 40% said they washed their hands with soap and clean water before eating.A Study on the correlation between sanitation, household water supply, mothers hygiene behaviours for children under 5 and the status of child nutrition in Vietnam, 2011 highlights that “mothers lacked knowledge of and did not practice personal hygiene behaviors and hygiene behaviors for child care properly: 23.8% of mothers reported “sometimes” washing hands. Only 36.2% of mothers often washed hands with soap after defecating, 22.8% before eating, 19% before and after preparing food, and 14.9% after helping children go to stool and cleaning children’s bottom”.These studies are indicative of the challenges still ahead in ensuring increased rates of hand washing at critical times.
This year’s theme for the Global Handwashing Day (GHD) is ‘The power is in your hands’.  Initiated by the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, the Global Handwashing Day will mark the 6th global annual Handwashing Day on 15 October 2013; this annual event is endorsed by governments, international institutions, civil society organisations, NGOs, private companies and individuals around the globe.


Students wash their hands with soap and water in Viet Nam


UNICEF programmes in the regional are using the opportunity of the Global Handwashing Day Action to raise awareness of the importance handwashing with soap across East Asia and Pacific region; below is a summary of some of the actions at the country levels:

  • In Lao PDR, street banners will be put to on main roads in Vientiane, film sport developed with UNICEF support will be aired on the TV, and schools across the country have been mobilized to organize activities throughout the whole week to raise awareness of the importance of handwashing with soap.
  • In Timor Leste, focusing on school children, UNICEF support at least 17 schools to organize drawing competition around the hand washing theme, as well as national level awareness raising events.
  • UNICEF in partnership with the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam aims to reach millions of viewers via National TV channels, internet, newspapers, and social media with key hand washing and hygiene messages.  An estimated 1,000 children and national  policymakers will participate in the celebration of the GHWD in Hanoi, an event organized by Unilever and MOH with technical support of UNICEF.
  • Led by the Department of Social Welfare and development, Philippines will launch the GHD in Day Care Centers, which will include release of Memorandum urging all local social welfare and development offices to implement daily group handwashing with soap in all day care centers all over the country, at the same time encouraging local government units to ensure availability of handwashing facilities, water and soap for children in Day Care centers. National Celebration of Global Handwashing Day in public elementary schools will be led by Department of Education. Local GHD celebrations include pledging of commitment/support with local businesses, private institutions, Civil Society Organizations, Local Government Units, media coverage on local and national TV and radio coverage of GHD celebrations across the country.
  • TV broadcast on hand washing with soap will be aired on national TV in Korea DPR, including distribution cartoon book on hand washing with soap, as well as several awareness raising events at nurseries and kindergarten and hospitals.
  • Hand washing with soap road show in 12 cities, as well as national level hand washing ambassador’s ceremony in presence of 1000 students and minister of Health is some of the activities planned in Indonesia.
  • Global Hand Washing day programme in Kiribati will be celebrated in partnership with Ministry of Public Works and Utility, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, UNICEF, SMEC and KAPIII which includes workshop for 15 schools teachers who will then lead the Hand washing day programme in respective schools. Over 6000 school children will participate at the respective schools and will practice hand washing. Press briefing and Radio massage will be aired throughout the day. The Hon. Health Minister will be the Chief Guest at the event at some schools, and Secretaries from different Ministries will participate in the programme.
These are just selection actions on the GHD – with the ultimate aim to raise awareness, mobilize more support to spread the practice of handwashing with soap as widely as possible – washing hands with soap saves lives!

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