By Cliff Kawanga:
Why should hand washing matter? That is the question most people would ask today. Although a lot of people would go to the hospital seeking help after falling sick, rarely would such people ask themselves whether the illness could have been prevented or not.
Indeed, washing hands with soap is the solution to most infections and diseases. From common cold to flu, from chicken pox to meningitis, from pneumonia to diarrhoea; all these diseases can be prevented by just washing hands with soap during five critical times. These critical times are after visiting the toilet, after changing a baby’s diaper/nappy, before breast-feeding or feeding the baby, before cooking and before eating.
The conversations on handwashing with soap are more significant today as the world is commemorating Global Handwashing Day. The day was set aside to increase awareness and understanding about the importance of handwashing with soap as fundamental to good health and development.
This year’s theme ‘Clean Hands for All,’ focuses on the importance of handwashing equity. What it means is that people must have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and running water regardless of geographical locations, economic, social, ethnic or any other statuses.
The need to improve access to handwashing facilities is huge. Countries like Malawi must commit to achieve the sustainable development goals and this would happen if there is an improvement on access to clean water, improved sanitation and hygiene which remain a crucial component in disease prevention.
According to a UNICEF and WHO study (2019) on Progress on Household Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, with a special focus on inequalities, about 47 percent of diarrhoeal diseases are preventable through handwashing.
Handwashing with soap is among the most cost-effective ways to improve health and development outcomes. Research suggests that handwashing may be the single most cost-effective strategy to reduce illnesses globally, and presents the best value among common efforts to prevent diarrhoeal diseases. Also, handwashing with soap has the potential to avert preventable illnesses and deaths, improve healthcare outcomes, and bolster progress in education, equity, and WASH to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Hand washing is important in education too. For instance, while school feeding programmes have been credited for improving attendance, such strides can easily be undone by lack of handwashing behaviours among teachers and pupils which limit health and developmental impact of such nutrition programmes. Failure to incorporate handwashing into water and sanitation programmes will dramatically limit the impact of such investments.
Typically, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations bear the most severe consequences from inequitable access to handwashing facilities and effective handwashing promotion. According to UNICEF and WHO only 60 percent of the world’s population has access to a basic handwashing facility and in the least developed countries only 28 percent of people have access to basic handwashing facilities. And in Malawi, according to UNICEF, only 10 percent of households have basic hygienic services.
Although people in the rural areas are less likely to have access to soap and water, there should be efforts to address the inequalities. By bringing low-cost handwashing facilities to the market, these disparities in handwashing rates could change. It is important to address inequalities that exist between the poor and the rich in accessing handwashing facilities.
Inequalities in accessing handwashing facilities also affect vulnerable groups, such as older people and people with disabilities. These vulnerable groups must have equal access to acceptable and appropriate handwashing facilities, and they should be involved in handwashing programming and promotion. For vulnerable groups, it is particularly important that soap and water are always kept at a handwashing facility, as it can be more challenging for them to access these materials independently. Usually, when hygiene and sanitation facilities are not well adapted, people with disabilities touch sanitation surfaces that others do not – putting them at greater risk of infections and diseases. This means that people with disabilities might not be eager to use public handwashing facilities.
Although the emphasis is usually on access to handwashing facilities, still most people with access to such facilities do not practise handwashing consistently and correctly. Globally, it is estimated that only 19 percent of people wash their hands after contact with excreta. Handwashing behaviour change efforts are critical to ensure handwashing with soap becomes habitual and is practised consistently at critical times.
As the world commemorates Global Handwashing Day, action is required to change the status quo. The government must invest in handwashing facilities especially in public facilities, the private sector should commit resources towards improving availability of handwashing facilities, the communities must safeguard handwashing facilities that exist, stakeholders must promote and facilitate access to handwashing facilities in households, schools must provide education on hygiene and institutions must incorporate training on hand hygiene and infection prevention. Most importantly, all handwashing facilities should be child and disability-friendly.
The author is Communication Specialist for WaterAid Malawi