Governments are not doing enough to encourage hand hygiene, say experts on Global Handwashing Day

Global Handwashing Day on October 15th is an international moment that aims to encourage people globally to improve their hand washing habits.

Efforts to bolster handwashing have languished following the darkest days of COVID-19, yet colds, flu, stomach bugs and diarrhoea still pose deadly risks.  525,000 children under five die each year globally from diarrhoea while pre-pandemic around 1,500 died each year from flu. 

On Global Handwashing Day, leading hygiene research organisation, the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute, is echoing cries from across the global health community for governments to re-energise hand hygiene promotion.

“It’s such a small act but we know that hand washing can save lives. This Global Handwashing Day, we’re urging governments to implement strategies and programs that encourage and enable this to become a regular habit so that lives can be saved, missed days of work and school from sickness can be avoided and losses to the economy as a result of these can be recouped,” said Professor Yik-Ying Teo, Dean and Professor, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.

Earlier this week, the Global Handwashing Partnership and the Hand Hygiene for All Initiative (HH4A) – which is led by UNICEF and the World Health Organization and aims to enable a culture of hygiene globally – highlighted commitments already made by various governments to strengthen hand hygiene policies and programs. We join their calls that these be scaled and learned from, said Simon Sinclair, Executive Director, RGHI, to better safeguard people’s health.

“We may no longer be in the throes of a pandemic but illness is always around the corner, especially now, when our immune systems are less used to fighting disease. The best way to ensure we don’t succumb is to maintain proper and thorough hygiene,” Professor Teo concluded.  

While research on the links between hygiene behaviour and health is limited, there is enough for the global public to know there is a direct connection. Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic shows that it is feasible to protect individual health through the right behaviours.

RGHI is currently working to create a more robust body of data and evidence that better explains how hygiene pertains to health and how various measures might be implemented by decision-makers to make for healthier communities around the world.

The new Hand Hygiene Accelerator Framework Tool, as shared by HH4A and the Global Handwashing Partnership in an event earlier this week, is one step toward accelerating better national hand hygiene progress.  

“Such frameworks and initiatives are vital if we’re to transition to a world in which everyone has what they need to wash their hands. While for many countries the emphasis needs to be on behaviour change, for some the lack of clean water and soap is what’s hindering good health and wellbeing, as per the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3,” said Professor Teo.

Over 3 billion people lack access to basic hand washing facilities while 1 in 4 health care centres also don’t have what they need. Currently, there’s not enough funding to remedy those deficits. According to the WHO, an extra $114 billion a year is needed to achieve adequate and equitable hygiene and sanitation for all.

“The problem often is that there are so many other competing priorities. But by investing in providing these amenities and promoting hand washing, countries will see improved health and economic outcomes,” Professor Teo said.

In Malawi, the national budget only sets aside 1.5% for water and environment initiatives which impact hygiene. Uganda allocates 3%.

“That’s why we’re asking governments this Global Handwashing Day to assess the work they’re doing around hygiene, consider their budgets and implement solid action plans with the help of initiatives like HH4A,” Simon Sinclair said. “At the same time, RGHI will remain committed to producing and supporting practical research that can support creating a more hygienic and healthy world.”

About Global Handwashing Day

An international advocacy day marked annually on 15th October, Global Handwashing Day aims to generate more awareness and understanding about the need to wash hands as a means of staving off diseases and preserving human health.