Why universal handwashing must be way of life

Every 23 seconds a child dies from either pneumonia or diarrhoea worldwide
Every 23 seconds a child dies from either pneumonia or diarrhoea worldwide. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Did you know that even today, every 23 seconds a child dies from either pneumonia or diarrhoea worldwide?

So, what do we do? We know that access to safe water, adequate sanitation, and proper hygiene education – or WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) – can reduce illness and death and have an impact on poverty reduction and socio-economic development. The simple act of handwashing for example, is the single most cost-effective way of stopping child deaths.

It can reduce the incidences of pneumonia by 23 percent and diarrhoea by up to 45 percent. When more people use soap regularly, and have access to sanitation, the impact on health is significant. In fact, if everyone followed ideal handwashing habits – washing with soap before eating and after using the toilet – each person would require approximately 20 bars of soaps every year.

However, consumption levels are far below this with 1.5 billion people using less than eight bars of soap per year – this clearly shows the magnitude of the task facing the world in terms of driving the WASH agenda.

While progress is being made on the WASH agenda with two of the Sustainable Development Goals clearly calling this out (SDG3 – Good Health & Hygiene & SDG6 – Clean Water and Sanitation) more needs to be done. To address this challenge, we need the private sector, the public sector, the social sector and the community to come together stronger than ever before to create a brighter future for our children.


Towards this end, a game-changing approach is in empowering young people to drive change. The power of young people in driving change across the world across many issues is well known. They want to be part of something meaningful and have an impact.

Their connectedness, their collaboration and their sense of community is what’s going to make a big difference. In Kenya, Unilever’s Lifebuoy has for example been partnering with the HEROES4CHANGE programme to drive large scale hand-washing education programmmes harnessing the untapped power of good of young university students. These young people have high social capital in the communities they come from and they are known in their communities for being passionate about creating lasting social impact.

The project works off this insight and is a social-mobilisation model, leveraging the power of young people, engaging them through digital social platforms and then getting them to deploy handwashing behaviour change programmes across Kenya.

Another aspect of this journey is to constantly raise awareness of the importance of handwashing with soap to prevent disease. A major event to do this is the Global Handwashing Day that is celebrated every year on October 15.

As we go forward together on this journey, we inspire each one of you today, on Global Handwashing Day, to give a High 5 to a person next to you to celebrate GHD – a High5 transcends all barriers of language and culture. It’s a sign of celebration – and most importantly, a sign of clean confident hands. It’s a way of life.