Not just another day

Global Handwashing Day is there to remind us of how simple the solutions to serious issues can be.

Global Handwashing Day is on the 15 October. Photograph: Concern Universal

Global Handwashing Day is on the 15 October. Photograph: Concern Universal

I’ve always been a sceptic when it comes to world “Days”. However noble the cause, what difference can they really make? The International Day of Peace – as if the various factions in Syria or Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists paused from their daily destruction to consider alternative approaches. How many acres of forest are cleared for extracting resources or planting cash-crops every World Environment Day? Aside from providing a hook for advocacy press releases, how could those involved possibly think that one day could positively affect the suffering on the front lines of poverty and insecurity? Well, having run behaviour change projects in West Africa over the last five years I am beginning to believe that it can.

Today is Global Handwashing Day, and together with its cousin World Toilet Day on 19 November, it brings attention to the most basic issues – hygiene and sanitation – that to our shame still account for two million child deaths a year.

A third of the world’s population – 2.4 billion people – live with poor sanitation and hygiene which, according to the World Bank, costs countries $260 billion annually. Every day 2,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday due to diarrhoeal diseases, the vast majority caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.

Diarrhoea alone killed far more young children in Nigeria over the last 12 months – around 150,000 – than Boko Haram’s slaughtering and the wars in Syria combined. Whilst we continue the daily search for even a hint of a resolution to these two brutal and complex conflicts, we already know the simple solution to tackling hygiene and sanitation-related diseases.

We know that handwashing with soap is the most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrhoeal diseases – reducing incidence by up to 47% – and combined with improved sanitation, this is boosted to 68%. We know that in countries with the highest child mortality rates as few as 1% of people wash their hands effectively, and that the global average is only 19%. Most frustratingly, effective tools and participatory methods are readily available and it is estimated that interventions that promote handwashing could save close to a million lives. So why is hygiene promotion not a focus of most development projects?

Read the full article in the WSSCC partner zone on the Guardian.

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