Hygiene experts call out the lack of attention to World Hand Hygiene Day

May 5th marked the World Health Organization’s World Hand Hygiene Day. Despite the world still being in the throes of a global pandemic where hand hygiene plays a core component, little was done to mark the day.

“This is a reflection of the sheer lack of attention governments around the world are paying to hygiene as a whole, something which is shocking given the crucial role it plays in our health and the wellbeing of our populations. You’d have thought after COVID-19, more people would show an interest in such things,” said Simon Sinclair, Executive Director at the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute, a not-for-profit foundation focussed on the generation of more research relating to hygiene behaviours and their impact. 

As it stands, there is an annual $114 billion investment gap in efforts to achieve adequate and equitable hygiene and sanitation for all – which forms United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 alongside clean water for all. Countries such as Uganda currently put only 3% of the national budget toward water and environment which impacts hygiene, and in Malawi it’s as low as 1.5%.

Given 3 billion people around the world don’t have access to basic hand washing facilities, nor do 1 in 4 health care centers, there should be more attention, more investment and more resources being plugged into exploring hygiene as a significant area of health.

This is something the Hand Hygiene Initiative for All (HH4A) – led by UNICEF, WHO and its partners – has been pushing for. It aims to bring governments, public and private sectors, and civil society together to improve access to the services in vulnerable communities to enable a culture of hygiene that will ultimately improve their health.

“World Hand Hygiene Day is the perfect moment to convey that message,” Simon Sinclair added.

After all, prior to vaccine developments and even solid testing, hand washing was one of the only weapons the world had against COVID-19. If such a pandemic were to arise again, hand washing would once more be critical yet little is being done to ensure people have what they need to engage in this practice or to build upon the momentum created by COVID-19 — people globally improved the frequency and length of time they washed their hands throughout the pandemic.

Not only did this help reduce the spread of COVID-19 but it also allowed other viruses to be kept at bay. Illnesses from the common cold to cholera, the flu to typhoid as well as hospital-acquired infections can all be contracted as a result of poor hygiene. In fact, handwashing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can reduce the number of cases of diarrhoea by 23-40% and respiratory illnesses by 16-21%.

“When it is integral to our health and could even save lives, it’s baffling that governments aren’t putting more emphasis on maintaining good hand hygiene, investing in it particularly among health centres, and capitalising on an international day of recognition to encourage good practices,” Simon Sinclair said.

In the UK, the international day — the theme of which for 2022 was on creating a health care “quality and safety climate or culture” that values hand hygiene and infection prevention and control — failed to make headlines.

“At a time when more people are going back to the office and mandated measures are being dropped, health systems could once again be placed under massive strain. Why not safeguard those systems by investing in the promotion of hand hygiene?” he continued.

In March, the UK government dropped the remaining restrictions related to COVID-19 and instead encouraged a return to office working with an emphasis on personal responsibility.

“The personal responsibility pushed by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson should translate into everyone doing their bit to safeguard our clinics and hospitals and contributing to a climate of quality and safety,” said Dame Sally Davies, UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance. “That starts with the simple act of handwashing. But now we need to encourage the continuation of these protective beahviours” 

RGHI believes a lack of research on just how critical hygiene is as a core component of good health may be a barrier to a wider understanding of why such practices must be maintained and invested in.

This is something RGHI is looking to change. Launched in 2020 in response to a profound deficit of hygiene-focussed research, it aims to support a portfolio of research focussed on the intersection of hygiene with health. A part of that includes learning more about how to change and influence people’s behaviour when it comes to hygiene practices.

“Only armed with more information can we understand those driving factors that do lead to long-term behaviour change,” Simon said. “Others should be doing the same which is why we’re sounding the alarm on what was a missed opportunity last week. It’s time the world woke up to one of the best weapons we have to fighting off illness and World Hand Hygiene Day was prime time to make that message heard.”

Going forward, RGHI calls on the health care community as well as decision-makers to push forward the message that hand hygiene must be here to stay if we’re to protect our health systems, economies and communities.