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Why is hand washing so important?

While most people do have access to soap, the number of people who regularly wash their hands at the right times – such as before eating and after using the toilet – is worryingly low.

Experts say that hand washing with soap is by far the best way to prevent germs from spreading and to keep children from getting sick, reports Sade Oguntola.
Did you wash your hands?” How many times did you hear that today? Probably a few times today. Washing hands is the best way to stop germs from spreading and causing illnesses and death. It is easy for germs to get to the hand— from the telephone, blowing of the nose into the tissue, wiping the face, sweeping the floor to the toilet.

One of the most cost-effective public health interventions that studies have shown can reduce incidence of diarrhoea disease by over 40 per cent is hand washing with soap.

Unfortunately many Nigerians, including children, do not practice regular hand washing, an intervention that will reduce by about 50 per cent incidence of diseases that kill children, like diarrhoea, eye infection, skin diseases, cholera and typhoid.

Paradoxically, poor hand washing practices couple with poverty, lack of access to health care services and education in many communities like Apete community, a suburb of Ibadan, make the chances of children below age of five years stand a higher chance of dying from many diseases that are passed from the hand to the mouth.

Little wonder, the commemoration of 2012 Global hand washing day by the Society for Family Health in collaboration with Oyo State Ministry of Health and with the support of Procter and Gamble Nigeria, in Apete was targetted at creating awareness on the importance of hand washing to saving lives of children below five years of age.

“From our experience working on women’s health and family planning services as an organisation in Apete, a community whose major bridge joining it to other parts of the city had being washed away, 80 per cent of the women in their reproductive age groups lack access to good medical care and services,” said Mr Tunde Ogungbemiro, Society for Family Health (SFH), Territorial Manager, Ibadan.

Mr Ogungbemiro stated: “Taking time out to teach proper hand washing in such a community as this with poor access to health care services is important in ensuring that their children live to their fifth birthday. Diseases that are transmitted through dirty hands are immense.”

Teaching and practice of washing hands with soap and water have great implication for children in ensuring they are protected from preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea and other communicable diseases that kill children below the age of five years.

Diarrhoeal diseases are estimated to be the cause of 1.6 million deaths per year, of which around 90 per cent are children. UNICEF estimates that diarrhoea kills one child every 30 seconds. Diarrhoeal diseases are often passed through untreated water or from person to person due to poor hygiene.

Soap is central to hands that are free from germs and worms. “Safeguard, the world’s leading antibacterial soap, has been helping mothers all over the world to protect their families against germs since 1963,” said Mrs Mofoluwaso Ileubare, Senior Human resources manager, P&G Nigeria.

“With an active ingredient which inhibits re-growth of skin germs for hours after washing, this soap empowers mothers to safeguard their families’ health by effectively removing millions of germs in a single wash,” said Mrs Ileubare.

On P&G’s donation of 20 cartoons of safeguard antibacterial soap to the community as well as a hand washing station for the pupils of Saint Peter’s Primary School, Apete, Ibadan, Mrs Ileubare said it was in line with the organisation’s Safeguard’s “Doctor on Wheels” programme just launched in Lagos to drive germ awareness and educate about the importance of good hygiene practices.

According to her, “Safeguard’s “Doctor on Wheels” programme is aimed at touching and improving consumers’ lives by driving germs awareness, educating about the importance of good hygiene practices, and disease prevention through regular hand washing with soap.

“This carefully designed programme features public hygiene talks, hand washing demonstrations, basic health tests and would enable doctors to have “one on one” interactions with consumers through the mobile medical programme to be executed in open markets across Nigeria starting from Lagos. At each location, the programme arrives at, consumers have the opportunity to consult with qualified medical doctor.”

Children are highly susceptible to diseases caused by a lack of effective sanitation and poor hygiene. But the most critical times for hand washing with soap and water for children, according to Mrs Oluwatoyin Oyelade, Disease Surveillance Notification officer, Ido Local Government, includes when just back from the toilet, before eating and preparing meals, before handling food, after taking care of animals and playtime.

According to her, good hand washing should entail washing of the palms, spaces between the fingers, back of the hand and fingers nails, up to the wrist area.

But making hand washing with soap an automatic behaviour in homes, schools, and communities, Dr Muyiwa Gbadegesin, Oyo State Health Commissioner, stated was imperative, considering the low level of hand washing practices in many homes.

Dr Gbadegesin, remarking that Oyo State government was planning on more comprehensive school health programme, including emphasising on hand washing, stated “Oyo state is committed to provision of good health to her citizenry, including the promotion of hand hygiene in communities and health care facilities in schools.“

“The training of health staff in government establishments to intensify hand washing in these settings has been concluded while radio jingles on proper hand washing have been aired and promoted through community dialogue.”

It is worth highlighting that hand washing with soap reduces the risk of diarrhoea by 45 per cent, pneumonia by 23 per cent and levels of school absenteeism by between 20 and 50 per cent. What’s more, there are strong social and economic arguments for investing in hand washing behavioural change programmes.


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