Hand washing 101

Yes, proper hand washing really does save lives.

If you go to schools in developing countries or in refugee camps, you will likely see kids washing their hands like they are scrubbing in for surgery. They are much more thorough than most North Americans, where apparently 69% of men don’t wash their hands (ew).

What makes kids in crisis so smart about hand washing? Why are they following the best practice guidelines for how to wash your hands, even when running water is scarce? They understand that it could save their lives.

As we’re all learning, hand washing is one of the best defences we have against all kinds of diseases (including COVID-19). It’s better than wearing gloves. It’s the  World Health Organization’s (WHO) top tip for slowing the spread of the virus. It saves lives all over the world. But a lot of people still don’t do it, even those that have easy access to resources, running water and information. So how do we make it possible for more people to wash their hands diligently? And how do you get people who have little access to running water or soap to prioritize washing their hands?

CARE works all over the world to promote proper hand washing as one of many healthy hygiene behaviours. Since 2015, we’ve helped more than 4.3 million people practice better hygiene during emergencies, and 2 million access better sanitation in crisis in more than 30 countries. It’s not just during emergencies. We work with people who don’t have regular access to running water all over the world so they can wash their hands more often.

Demonstration of proper hand washing technique in Bangladesh

What have we accomplished?

Hand washing increased up during emergencies. During Sierra Leone’s Ebola Emergency Response, people were 30% more likely to wash their hands. In Iraq, displaced families washed their hands 93% of the time—compared to 2% of the time before the project. In Nepal, 65% of people started washing their hands regularly after the earthquake in 2015.

More people wash their hands, even in stable contexts. In Ethiopia’s ARNI nutrition project, hand washing rates went up from 48% to 95%. In Benin, Bangladesh, and Zambia, anywhere from 90-97% of families reported hand washing with soap, compared to previous baselines of 30-50% with support from the Nutrition at the Center project. In Mali, people were 60% more likely to wash their hands.

People are washing their hands correctly. In Zimbabwe’s Woman and Girls at the Centre of Improving Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Health Projects, more than 90% of people were using the right hand washing methods, compared to 10% at the beginning of the project.

Communities are cleaner. In Yemen, people are twice as likely to have toilets to use, and 2.6 times more likely to wash their hands.

It’s all about timing. In Bangladesh’s SHOUHARDO program, people were 74% more likely to wash their hands before cooking. In Ethiopia, they were nearly 6 times more likely to wash their hands before eating.

How did we get there?

Focus on water supplies and infrastructure. In Sierra Leone, a CARE project rebuilt 45 wells, installed 20 water tanks in schools, and worked with WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) management committees to take care of these resources and spread safety messages. In a project in Mali, 15,423 new hand washing stations were installed. In Nepal, CARE and partners built sanitation equipment for more than 3,400 people.

Get people the information they need. All of these projects had public awareness campaigns around sharing information around the proper way for people to wash their hands. Nepal spread hygiene promotion messages for 29,858 people.

Get leaders involved. We all know that information isn’t enough. People need more than information to change their behaviour. CARE supported the training of influential community members, including religious leaders, established and trained school clubs to promote and monitor hygiene and sanitation activities within the school community, and reached out to parents and communities in adjacent villages.

The bottom line is that hand washing is clearly one of the simplest, smartest and most effective tools we all have to keep ourselves, our neighbours and loved ones from getting sick. It works, we’ve seen it time and time again. So, choose your hand washing song, get soaped up and stop the spread!

Help CARE respond to COVID-19 in some of the most world’s most vulnerable places.