October 10, 2018
Written by Hope Randall, Communications Officer, PATH’s Defeat Diarrheal Disease Initiative
If you’re reading this post, chances are you have grown up with the familiar injunction to wash our hands, especially before eating. But here’s something you may not know: clean hands are a recipe for health long after the meal is over, especially for children in poor communities who are most at risk of repeated diarrhea and other infections.
Increasingly, researchers are learning that for survivors of diarrheal illness, caused in large part by low awareness of healthy handwashing habits, the stakes are higher than ever. Repeated infections can take their toll, flattening the walls of the gut and blunting its ability to absorb the nutrients a child critically needs during the early years of brain and body growth.
Once the gut is damaged in this way, even the most nutrient-rich meal will have limited benefits. Without hygiene as a key ingredient, diarrhea and malnutrition can become a vicious cycle. The consequences of irreversible physical and cognitive stunting is a tragic reality for more than 100 million children around the world.
We know that to make progress for the world’s children and break the cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition, we need to integrate all the tools to prevent and treat diarrhea. Without safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), the tools available to address stunting globally will only achieve a 20% reduction.
We need to integrate WASH and nutrition, but how? There’s not one answer but many. DefeatDD and WaterAid’s recent analysis on the benefits of health and WASH integration highlights three success stories from Madagascar, Nepal, and Brazil. In Nepal, the government used immunization appointments to also educate parents about hygiene, with significant uptake in hygiene practices, from 2% at baseline to 54% after one year of implementation.
Global Handwashing Day is a great opportunity to spread the word about the health benefits of handwashing with soap to community members, but policymakers, too, need greater awareness about the return-on-investment for hygiene to protect against diarrhea’s long-lasting and insidious impacts over a lifetime. Your voice can help make this happen. Use the Global Handwashing Day social media toolkit materials to spread the word: clean hands are step one to a recipe for a healthy life!