Handwashing: The greatest medical invention of all time

Today, believe it or not, is Global Handwashing Day.

I appreciate there are a ton of these kinds of days, and it’s sometimes tough to get excited about them all. So far this month we’ve had World Habitat Day, International Day of Older Persons, International Day of Non-Violence, World Teachers Day, World Post Day, World Mental Health Day, International Day of the Girl Child, World Sight Day, International Day for Disaster Reduction, and International Day of Rural Women.

Phew! What a list -- and we're only halfway through the month. One would have to be a saint to get passionate about them all.

On the other hand, commemorative days can focus attention on what might easily be a vital yet neglected topic. Handwashing happens to be one such issue.

*     *     *

Just how vital was brought home to me following a visit to Haiti, about a year after the terrible earthquake that struck in January 2010.

Then, as now, hundreds of thousands of people were living in makeshift, unsanitary camps, and a major fear was the spread of cholera, a disease that can kill a child within hours. Incidences of child diarrhea in the camps had to be treated as possible cholera cases, prompting World Vision to immediately dispatch a sanitation team to disinfect latrines and other suspected areas of contamination.

Keeping cholera at bay requires strict observance of basic hygiene such as handwashing. I still remember our water and sanitation manager at the time, a rather forceful Dutchman named Theo Huitema, fuming about what he considered an inadequate “wash your hands” sign in one camp.

Sophors' children have reason to smile. Thanks to World Vision's efforts in their community, they suffer less often from hygiene-related illness. (Photo: Vichheka Sok/World Vision)

“It’s 'wash your hands with soap!'” he thundered. When you consider that the spread of cholera can rapidly kill thousands, it pays to get the message right.

Of course, the issue doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of life-and-death to make handwashing important. The picture above shows 4-year-old Dang Lyn of Cambodia having his hands cleaned. In former times, he suffered regularly from diarrhea and stomachaches. His mother, Sophors, spent much of her income on medical bills.

But things changed when World Vision began a comprehensive hygiene and sanitation program in Dang’s village -- a critical component of child sponsorship programs. Formerly, villagers had little idea of the harm caused by dirty hands and unsanitary conditions. Now, they have come to appreciate the clean, fresh look of their village and their clean kids.

“I see most of the villagers love cleanliness like I do, because we think about children’s health,” Sophors says.

Every 60 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from diarrhea -- but the incidence of diarrhea can be radically reduced by handwashing.  As the Global Handwashing Day website points out, ingraining the habit of handwashing could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention.

That should prompt us to take Global Handwashing Day very seriously indeed.

Access to a source of clean, safe water, hygiene, and basic sanitation are predictors of dramatically reduced infant mortality rates and incidences of disease. World Vision works to bring these resources as part of our efforts to help communities escape poverty around the world.

Here are two ways you can join us:

  • Make a one-time to donation to our Water and Sanitation Fund. Your gift will help World Vision bring greater access to resources like deep wells, piping systems, water purification equipment, hygiene training, and more to areas where water- and hygiene-related illness is a problem.
  • Sponsor a child today. By extending your love and support to a child in need, you'll help deliver life-giving basics like access to clean water and basic sanitation and hygiene -- plus medical care to help ensure that he or she stays healthy.


    I am going to live in Vietnam and would like to teach hand hygiene and dental hygiene in some rural schools and orphanages. I am a nurse. Are there any resources that you have that I could use? I would be happy to do a course or answer any of your questions. I am not affiliated with any company or organisation

    Leave a Comment

    The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.