Hand washing with soap has been cited as one of the most cost-effective interventions to prevent diarrhoeal related deaths and infectious diseases. Statistics compiled by UN Agencies including UNICEF indicate that hand washing with soap at critical times - including before eating or preparing food and after using the toilet - can reduce diarrhoea rates by more than 40 per cent. It can cut down the incidence of acute respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia by around 23 per cent. Hand washing can also be a critical measure in controlling pandemic outbreaks of respiratory infections. Several studies carried out during the 2006 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) suggest that washing hands more than 10 times a day can cut the spread of the respiratory virus by 55 per cent. In spite of the magic of this simple act, indications are that rates of hand washing around the world are low.
Interestingly, hand washing is an act that can be easily done anywhere as long as one has water and soap. Yes, it is not an act that can be done without any attendant ceremonious activities nor does it require sophisticated equipment. For instance, in communities like Konsuaso in the Kejebi district of the Volta region, community members have improvised an easy way of washing their hands after using the toilet or when they return home from work. The hand washing system comprises a plastic gallon that is perforated close to the bottom and plugged with a stick. It is then filled with water and mounted on two bigger sticks. Soap is placed in a small tin on the stand. When one is ready to wash his or her hands, the individual just unplugs and is able to wash under running water.
This does not require government subsidies nor donor funding. What it does require however, is a triggering by experts who are mostly field officers of District Environmental Health Offices. They have been trained to appreciate the relationship between the environmental hazards of open defecation popularly known as “free range,” the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and dysentery; and the remedy simple hand washing provides. The fact is that we pick up germs with our hands from various points including visiting the toilet, playing or working, and also from objects such as doorknobs and stair railings as well as from handshakes. So when one forgets to wash the hands, he or she can spread these germs to other people or give them to one's self by touching the eyes, mouth, nose or cuts on the body.
So if possible, one needs to wash the hands thoroughly with soap before preparing food, before eating, handling raw and cooked or ready to eat food; after visiting the toilet or changing diapers; before breast feeding babies; after smoking; using a tissue or handkerchief; handling rubbish or working in the garden; after playing; and returning from school, work or travel.
This is an indirect call to a life of good hygiene and proper sanitation. Negligence in observing this very simple and basic rule has dire consequences as already mentioned. There is particular concern about people's attitude to toilet and human excreta or faeces. It is a known fact that human excreta can transmit many infectious diseases between people, including cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio, and diarrhoeal diseases. Under-nutrition, pneumonia and worm infections are also associated with unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene.
These result in reduced physical growth, weakened physical fitness and impaired cognitive functions, particularly among children under age 5. But all of these can be curtailed by the simple act of washing ones hands with soap under running water.
The importance of this simple act, led to the creation of Global Hand washing Day on October 15th during the 2008 Annual World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden. It was an initiation of the Public Private Partnership for Hand washing.
It resulted in a campaign aimed at reducing childhood mortality rates, related respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases by introducing a simple behavioral change, which is hand washing with soap. The theme for this year’s celebration is “Raise a hand for hygiene.” It is an action oriented theme to identify one as a hygiene champion.
So on this occasion the message is simple and clear – “Wash your hands and be a champion for hygiene and good health.”
BY: AMA KUDOM-AGYEMANG, ENVIRONMENT AND SCIENCE JOURNALIST.