In international development we often discuss the hardware components of interventions. For the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector, this usually entails focusing on resources such as drills, chlorine tablets, and toilets. But, on one day, October 15, the sector focuses on behavior instead of hardware. A simple, effective, and low-cost life-saving behavior–hand washing with soap. Global Handwashing Day, celebrated annually on October 15 by over 200 million people, is a day marked by celebration, advocacy, and renewed dedication to hand washing promotion.
We know that hand washing with soap can significantly reduce the risk of death from diarrhea and pneumonia, and we continue to learn more about its other health benefits.This year, we celebrate recent accomplishments in child survival. According to UNICEF’s “A Promise Renewed” report, fewer than two million children died from diarrhea and pneumonia in 2012. This represents remarkable progress toward reducing the under-five mortality rate. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, diarrheal-caused mortality among children decreased by more than 50 percent, and morality from pneumonia decreased by approximately 35 percent.
We know that hand washing with soap can significantly reduce the risk of death from diarrhea and pneumonia, and we continue to learn more about its other health benefits. For example, in July 2013, The Cochrane Library published a review indicating a potential link between access to clean water and hand washing with soap and reduced stunting in children under the age of five. This encourages us to continue exploring the nexus between WASH and nutrition though cross-sector collaboration. WASH is already collaborating with partners focused on nutrition and early childhood development in the Clean, Fed, and Nurtured community of practice.
Ultimately, while hand washing is an individual behavior, it takes all of us to ensure that our communities experience the health benefits.Despite these successes in mortality reduction and new knowledge, work remains. Diarrhea and pneumonia asymmetrically affect the poorest children. Three-quarters of childhood deaths caused by these diseases are concentrated in only fifteen countries. Each day in 2012, more than 3,000 children died from pneumonia. And it is for these reasons that we celebrate on this day–with water, suds, and clean hands–and reaffirm our commitment to this cause.
We hope you will join us and celebrate the power that is in each of our hands to save lives with soap. Educators, the power is in your hands to foster hand washing as a habit in your students. Helpful games, lesson plans, and other resources are available on the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing’s website. Parents, the power is in your hands to set a good example for your children and encourage hand washing at a young age. Policy makers, the power is in your hands to ensure that hand washing with soap is a possibility in communities where it is most essential. Supporting hand washing policies at the national and international level is one step that everyone can take towards this goal.
Ultimately, while hand washing is an individual behavior, it takes all of us to ensure that our communities experience the health benefits. Join hands with us to work toward universal hand washing, healthier communities, and reduced child mortality.