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LIDC Podcast: The Global Campaign to Promote Handwashing with Soap

One of the founders of Global Handwashing Day explains how the simple act of handwashing with soap could save one million lives a year. In the latest episode of Development Matters, Dr Val Curtis, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), discusses how this practice is the most cost-effective way of preventing the spread of human diseases, particularly diarrhoeal disease. She also describes its major knock-on economic and social benefits, especially as the transmission of illnesses which stunt and limit the physical growth and intellectual development of a child can be prevented by handwashing with soap.Trained in engineering, epidemiology and anthropology, Curtis champions an interdisciplinary approach to healthcare that brings together academic expertise, cultural sensitivity and private entrepreneurship.
Dirty hands: a global concern
Curtis begins by describing how the failure to wash one’s hands is an international problem: only five to 10 per cent of people wash their hands with soap after visiting the toilet. In addition, just 47 per cent of mothers in the north of England clean their hands after changing a dirty nappy. Curtis says: “If everybody washed their hands with soap we would be able to save something in the order of one million lives a year just from diarrhoeal disease.” She explained how handwashing with soap is a bit like a “do-it-yourself vaccine", and how a recent World Bank/World Health Organisation (WHO) joint report credited handwashing with being the most cost-effective single disease prevention intervention. Curtis stressed the importance of using soap when handwashing, and warned against treating water alone as a miraculous “purifying agent."
The roles of habit and disgust
Curtis says the use of soap is, first of all, “a matter of habit”, rather than a question of availability. She referred to research from 11 countries (ranging from Kenya to Peru) which shows that soap is found in 97 per cent of households, but that it is not being used when it is needed.
Her work draws on people’s emotions, particularly disgust, to encourage them to wash their hands. She explains how international findings show that if people feel disgusted by dirt they would take action to cleanse themselves of it. According to Curtis, it is possible to use the “universal human value of disgust”  as a means to change people’s daily habits. She maintains that telling people that their children are “getting sick because they are dirty...turns them off completely”.
Global Handwashing Day and the private sector
Curtis also explains the rapid growth of Global Handwashing Day, held annually on 15 October. The campaign has grabbed media headlines since it began in 2008, and 20 countries have now adopted  national handwashing programmes. A million children washed their hands at the same time in Bangladesh - a Guinness World Record - as part of the day's activities last year.
Global Handwashing Day was developed by the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap. Curtis co-founded this partnership - a collaboration involving academics, the world’s three major soap companies – Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive – and others. This “extremely powerful partnership” is mutually beneficial and allows a considerable exchange of knowledge and expertise between different groups, including marketing from the multinationals and research insights from the academic community. Unilever has recently announced its aim to raise the number of people washing their hands with soap to one billion in five years, and ultimately to four billion.
By Davide Morandini, postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and a work experience placement student at LIDC