Global Handwashing Day, celebrated annually on October 15th, serves to remind the population on the importance of handwashing with soap as a potent and economical way to prevent diseases and save lives. This year, this vital message has not only been voiced on October 15th, but countless times since the COVID-19 pandemic hit us unprepared. Nevertheless, this basic defence against COVID-19 is still out of reach for millions of people.
A few months ago, a report released by the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) revealed that two in five, or 43 per cent of schools globally lacked access to basic handwashing with soap and water in 2019.
Approximately 818 million children still lack basic handwashing facilities at their schools, according to the report, placing these children and their teachers in a more vulnerable position to combat the coronavirus and other transmittable diseases. Over one-third of these children (295 million) are from sub-Saharan Africa, where over a million COVID-19 cases have been reported.
In worldwide households, numbers are also worrying. According to the latest data provided by UN-Water, only 60% of the world’s population has access to a basic handwashing facility within their households. A lot of disparity still exists between high-income nations, where there is almost universal coverage of basic handwashing facilities, compared to the least developed countries, where only 28 per cent of people have access to basic handwashing facilities.
There is little information on handwashing hygiene access in health care facilities. According to UN-Water, only 16 countries have data on the availability of handwashing facilities at toilets in health care facilities and only 55 countries have data on handwashing facilities at points of care.
This year’s theme
The theme for this year could be no other than ‘Hand Hygiene for All’, a call for all of society to achieve universal hand hygiene. A theme that aligns with the new Hand Hygiene for All Initiative led by the WHO and UNICEF.
Handwashing with soap can help reduce the transmission of a range of diseases:
- Handwashing can reduce diarrheal diseases by 30% to 48%.
- Handwashing can reduce acute respiratory infections by 20%.
- Handwashing plays an important role in reducing the transmission of outbreak-related pathogens such as cholera, Ebola, shigellosis, SARS and hepatitis E.
- Hand hygiene is protective against healthcare-associated infections and reduces the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
- Hand hygiene may contribute to the reduction of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
In the case of COVID-19, washing one’s hands with soap destroys the outer membrane of the virus and thereby inactivates it. According to a University College London study, washing hands at least six times a day cuts infection risk by 36%.
Throughout 2020, worldwide researchers, water experts and global organizations have said that the current health crisis should be a wake-up call for water security. In late August, experts at the University of Birmingham in the UK and Northwestern University in the US urged policymakers across the world to focus on behavioural change, knowledge promotion and investment in water infrastructure. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to do in terms of achieving universal access to hand hygiene. As UN-Water points out, handwashing behaviour at an individual and societal level also needs to change, so it can become a long-term habit and a norm. Although providing handwashing facilities, soap and water to all is a fundamental step, these actions need to be complemented with hygiene promotion.
Research also plays a key role. Although in the past two decades, there has been a growing number of studies on handwashing and hygiene behaviour change, there is still a lot to learn. Scientists still do not have a full understanding about the conditions required for soap to remove and inactivate certain pathogens, and there are still important gaps in our understanding of alternative products to soap, for example, handwashing with ash, or reliable methods for measuring hygiene behaviour effectively.