The year, 2014 would not be forgotten in a hurry by Africans, including Nigerians, following the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) which sent shock waves down the spines of everyone. It almost became a silent norm to avoid handshakes or stay away from people perceived to have symptoms such as fever, cough, etc. for fear of contacting the dreaded EVD. The imminent fear led campaigns from private and public institutions to promote the practice of hygiene.
Whilst personal hygiene was held in high esteem across the country, certain people capitalized on the health crisis to engage in the brisk business of hand sanitizers while the outbreak lasted. Two years since after the outbreak of EVD, the practice of promoting hand washing appears to have waned off. This practice has not only nosedived by the general population but also amongst healthcare providers.
The practice of hand washing is one of the most cost-effective investments in public health yet it is seldom practiced across all works of life despite its lifesaving potential. Given the impact of handwashing on health, nutrition, education, and equity, lack of investment in handwashing has important economic implications at the population level.
Research show that handwashing is particularly cost effective when compared to other interventions. For example, a $3.35 investment in handwashing promotion is estimated to deliver the same amount of health benefits as $11 investment in latrine construction, a $200 investment in household water supply, or an investment in immunizations, according to Global Handwashing Partnership, a coalition of international stakeholders who recognize hygiene as a pillar of international development and public health.
Although people wash their hands with water, very few wash their hands with soap at critical moments (for instance, after using the toilet, while cleaning a child, and before handling food). Although the lack of soap is not a significant barrier to handwashing at home, the use of soap is frequently for laundry, washing dishes and bathing is perceived as priority for soap use as opposed to handwashing.
The 2017 Global Handwashing Day theme “Our hands, our future!” reminds us that handwashing protects our own health, but also allows us to build our own futures, as well as those of our communities, and the world.
Because handwashing is an affordable, effective way to achieve these goals, by having the power to improve access to education for children, protect the health of patients and communities, and reduce inequities. It has an important role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals—contributing to zero hunger, good health, quality education, reduced inequalities, and more.
Promoting the benefits and practice of handwashing with soap, as well as fostering access to and improving hygiene facilities, will help us work towards a future where that potential is realized. On the other hand, school programs can help establish lifelong healthy habits. Making toilets and handwashing stations available in schools is essential to ensure children’s access to school, especially for girls, and critical to students’ health and to reducing absenteeism.