It’s common knowledge that prevention is better than cure; yet, every year an estimated 2 million children don’t reach their fifth birthday due to the largely preventable diseases diarrhoea and pneumonia. Prevention need not be complicated; for diarrhoea and pneumonia the simple practice of regular handwashing with soap is one of the most effective and low-cost public health interventions available.
From a health and hygiene perspective, the power of prevention is massive.
Saving 600,000 Lives Every Year
Research demonstrates that handwashing with soap reduces the risk of diarrhoea by 45 per cent, pneumonia by 23 per cent, and improves levels of school absenteeism by approximately 20 to 50 per cent. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates handwashing with soap could save the lives of over 600,000 children every year - the equivalent of 10 jumbo planes of children saved every day [UNICEF].
While most people do have access to soap, the number of people who regularly wash their hands at the right times – such as before eating and after using the toilet – is worryingly low. For example, India is the leading market for Unilever’s health soap brand, Lifebuoy, in terms of soap penetration – 99 per cent of homes report having soap present - yet the country has the highest child mortality related to diarrhoeal disease. Further, across a global review of 11 countries, the average rate of handwashing after using the toilet is only 17 per cent. This dips as low as 3 per cent in Ghana and 1 per cent in rural India.
Addressing the Gap Between Hygiene and Prevention
Unilever’s health soap brand, Lifebuoy, is uniquely placed to address this gap and help reposition hygiene habits as new norms, especially where a new habit can mean a matter of life and death. Lifebuoy has set out a bold and ambitious challenge to positively impact the health and hygiene behaviour of one billion people by 2015, a commitment that was publicly stated as part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in 2010.
Whilst inspiring people to change their behaviour is not easy, getting them to integrate these new behaviours into their daily routine is even more challenging.
Influencing Behaviour: Affecting Social Norms & Commitments
Fear of diseases is not a motivator; peer pressure is crucial. Habits don’t come over night and need to be practised for a certain period of time before they become ingrained in a daily routine. Pledging in front of people that matter encourages people to hold themselves accountable and stick to their commitment. We also partner with leading hygiene, behavioural sciences, marketing and digital experts to ensure that our behavioural change programme continues to resonate effectively with mothers and children across the world.
Now we have taken this collaborative approach one step further by partnering with public organisations and governments to expand and deepen our expertise, maximise our resources, share costs and, most importantly, ensure greater scale and impact. This includes organisations like Populations Services International [PSI], Millennium Villages Project [MVP] and Water, Sanitation for the Urban Poor [WSUP].
Millennium Development Goal 4
This approach is going to prove crucial as we work with our partners to make handwashing with soap a reality for all and achieve Millennium Development Goal 4 to reduce child mortality levels by two thirds. However, there is so much more we can do.
We are increasingly pioneering new models of co-investments from both public and private sector resources to ensure the scale of hygiene promotion programmes is enhanced and targeted towards the most vulnerable demographics– under-fives and their families in most at need countries. Of course, there has been scepticism along the way. But it is diminishing as levels of scientific proof and the long-term commitment we put forward in our joint programmes show increasingly positive results.
As we celebrate this year’s Global Handwashing Day today, let’s put the spotlight on governments, international institutions, civil society organisations, NGOs, and the soap industry to push hygiene up on the global health agenda and unlock the true potential of handwashing with soap.
You can show your support and help more children reach their fifth birthday by pledging on our Facebook page. With every pledge, Lifebuoy and its partners will help more children receive hygiene education through their dedicated handwashing behaviour change programmes.
About the Author:
Myriam Sidibe is Lifebuoy’s Global Social Mission Director and is one of the only people in the world with a doctorate in public health, focused on handwashing with soap. She has spent 14 years working with thousands of children understanding the most effective ways to get them to wash their hands with soap at key occasions like before eating or after using the bathroom. Myriam is one of the driving forces behind the creation of Global Handwashing Day.
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