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Wash Your Hands—A Simple Action with Exponential Benefits

Today, on Global Handwashing Day, has launched its 3rd annual Blog Action Day appropriately themed this year around water. There is much to be said about the global water shortage and its links to national security, women’s security and rights, desertification, agricultural livelihoods, and many other things, but let’s start with something intuitive: washing your hands and preserving your health. Like brushing your teeth and crossing the street, it is something many of us were taught to do as children, but few of us were told washing our hands might save our lives.

Yet, more than 800 million people worldwide do not have access to a safe water supply, and death and disability from water-borne disease is a real, daily risk. In fact, diarrhea is the most common cause of illness today. Every year, diarrheal disease kills 1.5 million people; over 90% of them are children younger than 15. Nearly 90% of the people who die from diarrheal diseases do so because they are using unsafe water, inadequate sanitation facilities, or poor personal hygiene practices.

It is estimated that handwashing with soap could prevent half of all deaths from diarrheal disease and a quarter of deaths from acute respiratory infections. Health workers have a crucial role to play in teaching their patients and communities about the importance of washing their hands. In part this means leading by example and practicing solid infection control practices in clinics, but it also means taking an active role in talking to patients—new parents and young children especially—about handwashing.

Next week, The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) is convening the Water and Health: Where Science Meets Policy conference, which among its many themes will examine how the health and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) sectors can better integrate their work and save more lives. To further this discussion, IntraHealth, along with UNC-CH, PATH, and WaterAid, is convening a workshop and intersectoral discussion, “Integration of WaSH and Health Systems.” At this session, speakers from around the globe will share their experiences and present case examples of how health and WaSH sector professionals have improved water and sanitation and secured better health in local communities.  

While health workers can act as catalysts in changing community habits such as handwashing, real change in preventing waterborne disease depends on these communities having clean water and adequate sanitation in the home, the workplace, the school, and the clinic. Only then will we truly see the exponential benefits of this simple action: washing your hands, which can bring the global community that much closer to achieving its goal by 2015 to half the proportion of people who do not have access to safe water and basic sanitation.


Bartram, J. and J. Platt. September 2010“How health professionals can leverage health gains from improved water, sanitation and hygiene practices.” Perspectives in Public Health 130: 215-221

Prüss-Üstün A., Bos R., Gore F., Bartram J. 2008. “Safer water, better health: costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.” World Health Organization: Geneva.

UNICEF/WHO. 2009. “Diarrhea: Why children are still dying and what can be done.” UNICEF/WHO: New York, NY.

WHO. “World Health Statistics 2010.” World Health Organization: Geneva.

WHO. The Global Burden of Disease, 2004 Update.