On World Health Day hygiene experts say global health has forgotten its most important weapon
Hygiene is vital in fighting off a whole range of diseases, including COVID-19, yet policymakers and others fail to invest, promote, and research it, say hygiene experts at the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute. Instead, vaccines, antibiotics and alternative treatments take centre stage leaving this critical health component to wane.
Hygiene, according to the RGHI, is the conditions and practices that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases.
“We are sounding the alarm to say unless we increase investment in hygiene now our other health interventions will only get us so far,” said Dame Sally Davies, UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance. “We should not need to use antibiotics just because a person cannot or does not wash their hands properly.”
Diseases such as cholera, typhoid, intestinal worm infections and polio can all be contracted as a result of poor hygiene. As too can flu and the common cold also, of course, COVID-19. While hand washing sounds simple even with clean water, the uptake of regular practices requires behaviour and social change within a community. This isn’t always easy to achieve, especially if there is a lack of resources, knowledge and skills.
“This is why more research, investment and attention is needed in the hygiene space,” Simon Sinclair, Executive Director of RGHI said. “There are still pockets around the world where there are vast clean water and hygiene gaps. This must be remedied if we’re to achieve critical health milestones such as good health for all by 2030, as per the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”
According to the World Health Organization, 2 in 5 schools and 1 in 4 health care centers worldwide still lack basic hand-washing facilities. Then, there are communities that lack clean water to wash with, who live closely alongside animals, or whose living spaces have dirt floors; all of which constitute challenges to maintaining good hygiene.
Additionally, 500 million women, girls, and people who menstruate don’t have what they need to manage their menstrual cycles — access to WASH facilities, information, and sanitary products.
“Much more needs to be done in global hygiene beyond providing water and soap. As a first step, we need to identify what the barriers are to fixing these challenges and addressing these gaps. That requires research. From there, policymakers and figureheads can better allocate funding to eliminate these issues,” Professor Albert Ko, Professor and Chair of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, Yale School of Public Health said. “Unless this happens, the health of communities will continue to be in jeopardy, we will be ill prepared for the next pandemic, and economies will be stunted.”
“There is still such a long way to go in improving access to water and soap for improved hygiene. As a first step, we need to identify what the barriers are to fixing these challenges and addressing these gaps. That requires research. From there, policymakers and figureheads can better allocate funding to eliminate these issues,” Sinclair, continued. “Unless this happens, the health of communities will continue to be in jeopardy, we will be ill prepared for the next pandemic, and economies will be stunted.”
RGHI, a not-for-profit foundation that launched in 2020, aims to support the filling of those gaps by supporting the generation of high-quality, scientific research that assesses the links between hygiene and health. How can the economic evaluation of handwashing interventions be improved? What are the impacts of unmet menstrual health and hygiene needs on health and education? What is the effectiveness of community-led initiatives on hygiene practices in low-income settings? Is there a way to improve backyard poultry management to reduce exposure to faeces?
These are some of the questions the Institute’s first cohort of five fellows will attempt to answer over the next three years. The aim is to help inform the global health agenda while leading to the adoption of better and more sustainable hygienic practices globally.
“More initiatives like this, that specifically seek to plug the massive evidence gaps we have in hygiene, are needed. Of course, there are other areas of health intervention that are equally as important but thus far hygiene has been neglected when it has the power to dramatically improve human health and food security globally and, thus improve economies,” Sinclair concluded.
Research in Bangladesh found that an estimated 4% of GDP per capita is spent on treatment for diarrheal.
Despite the value there can be to societies from investing in improved hygiene practices, there is a lack of funding. The World Bank has estimated that to achieve adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all – which makes up Sustainable Development Goal 6 alongside clean water for all — there would need to be an additional $114 billion invested each year. This is triple the current level investment.
Countries such as Uganda currently put 3% of the national budget toward water and environment which impacts hygiene, and in Malawi it’s as low as 1.5%.
“If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how important hygiene is to our health. It’s important we continue the hygiene practices built during this time and carry that momentum forward to ensure everyone has what they need to maintain good hygiene and good health,” Professor Ko said. “We urge world leaders to pay more attention to hygiene as a critical weapon against viruses, infections and disease.”