What's the big deal with handwashing?

Washing hands is crucial during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: Concern Worldwide.
Washing hands is crucial during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: Concern Worldwide.

You’ve heard so much about the importance of washing your hands at this stage that it’s probably becoming a little repetitive. For us, that point came a long time ago — we’ve been pushing this message around the world for over 50 years.

We speak the truth

In a world of fake news, here’s one fact that we know to be absolutely, undeniably, 100% true: washing your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water is THE most effective way of preventing the spread of bacteria and disease.

The soap bit is very important, because soap has special qualities that make it uniquely effective in the war on germs. 

And by the way, “antibacterial” soap adds just about nothing to the process. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: “To date, studies have shown that there is no added health benefit for consumers using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap.”

A mother in Ethiopia washes her child’s hands with soap and water at a Concern nutrition clinic. Photo: Kieran McConville
A mother in Ethiopia washes her child’s hands with soap and water. Photo: Kieran McConville

While a thorough, all-over wash for at least 30 seconds is central to hand hygiene, rinsing is just as important — to wash away the bacteria that have been lifted from your hands.

Why the hands?

Because our hands are the parts of our body that most regularly come into contact with other people and substances and surfaces that can carry harmful bacteria. We may not realise it’s happening, but those hands very often end up coming in contact with our mouth or nose or eyes — all direct conduits for transferring bacteria effectively and efficiently into our operating system.

Hand sanitiser has become popular in recent years — and it has its uses — but there’s just no substitute for effective handwashing. Over the past five decades, in more than 70 countries, Concern staff have been hammering the message home to anyone who will listen. It’s the cheapest, easiest method of preventing everything from diarrheal diseases to conjunctivitis to viruses such as the cold, flu, and corona variants.

Now, when we say it’s cheap and easy, we mean that in relative terms. For many, access to clean water and soap is far from easy. That’s why Concern and other organisations have spent hundreds of millions of pounds building sustainable water systems, conducting countless hygiene training sessions, and ensuring a steady supply of soap to vulnerable households, especially those displaced by emergencies.

It works - trust the science

This massive collective effort has been having an effect. Childhood deaths from diarrheal disease have fallen by nearly 60 per cent in the last 30 years alone. Access to handwashing facilities has increased substantially… although not quickly enough. In 2017, 60 per cent of the global population (4.5 billion) had a basic handwashing facility with soap and water available at home. Another 22 per cent (1.6 billion) had handwashing facilities which lacked water or soap, and 18 per cent (1.4 billion) had no handwashing facility at all.

Two local men, Naaju and Rajesh are talking to each other happily while drinking water from water plant installed by Concern Worldwide. Photo: Black Box Sounds/ Concern Worldwide.
Two local men, Naaju and Rajesh are talking to each other happily while drinking water. Pakistan. Photo: Black Box Sounds/ Concern Worldwide.

At a time when the world is facing an unprecedented health threat from a viral infection primarily transferred through people’s hands, there really is no reason why this should not be everyone’s top priority. At Concern, we will redouble our efforts to promote good hand hygiene among those with whom we work — the communities most vulnerable to the effects of any outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic.

We’ve been saying it for 50 years, and we’ll keep saying it for as long as it takes. Handwashing saves lives.

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