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Handwashing: simple act with far-reaching benefits in fight against COVID-19

Two hundred years ago, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician suggested handwashing can save lives, but he was ignored. Today, handwashing is proving to be indeed life-saving. Anthonia Obokoh highlights the benefits and challenges of handwashing in Nigeria and around the world.

Think of some of the world’s greatest disasters like earthquakes and floods which incidentally bring people together, holding each other’s hands through the fear and the pain.

However, human history shows pandemics – such as COVID-19 – have driven them apart. In these types of crises, holding hands is not particularly a reflex reaction, what is more vital for survival is ensuring those hands are clean enough to live through the crisis.

In February, the Nigerian Government announced the first case of the COVID-19 in Nigeria, triggering a nationwide campaign on frequent hand washing with soap and water for twenty seconds.

But what is more surprising is the long history of handwashing which has been a central component of overall health and hygiene. According to the Global Handwashing partnership, the concept of hand washing only gained public recognition in the 1980s when a string of foodborne outbreaks and healthcare related infections raised serious concerns.

With these, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified hand hygiene is an important way to prevent the spread of infection. Since then, the world has gone through several guidelines on effective hand hygiene practices.

As Nigeria heads cautiously to the new normal, we must remind ourselves of just how important hand washing is to our general health and in the fight against the current pandemic.

How effective is handwashing?

According to a study published in 2018 by the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC), a journal of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), infection prevention practices centred on hand hygiene protocols has the ability of saving lives across all healthcare facilities beyond the hospitals.

Findings from this research revealed the impact of implementing hand hygiene programmes among nursing homes; it was found that incorporating consistent measures that prompt staff, residents, and visitors to wash their hands can lower mortality and antibiotic prescription rates, thereby increasing health and hygiene.

Additionally, research from leading health publication, Health Affairs found that improving practices of hand hygiene reduced hospital-acquired infections and decreased mortality rates among children admitted to a large paediatric intensive care unit between 2007 and 2009.

Furthermore, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocates hand hygiene as the primary measure proven to be effective in preventing healthcare-associated infections and the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Lastly, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that handwashing with soap and water could reduce diarrheal disease-associated deaths by up to 50 percent and reduce risk of respiratory infections by 16 percent.

The challenge

It appears that one of the most effective ways to curb the spread of a disease such as the world is currently battling, is as basic as ‘hand washing’. However, this can never be more critical, yet, several communities lack access to basic hand hygiene. According to data from UNICEF, three billion people – 40 percent of the world’s population – do not have a place in their homes to wash their hands with water and soap.

Data also shows that the majority of people in the least developed countries have a higher risk of a COVID-19 infection due to a lack of hand hygiene facilities. In the 60 highest-risk countries, 2 out of 3 people – 1 billion people in total – lack basic hand washing facilities with soap and water at home. Around half are children. The same data also show schools, clinics, hospitals and other public spaces lack hand hygiene facilities, putting children, teachers, patients, health workers and the entire public also at risk.

The solution for the mix

There is no better time to see a mass obsession with hand hygiene; with the wealth of knowledge available on the impact of handwashing practices, actual compliance for this before the outbreak of coronavirus, was disturbingly low. Surging COVID-19 cases across Nigeria no longer question the effectiveness of handwashing; the main focus is on how to establish hand washing as a way of life amongst Nigerians.

To control the spread of the COVID-19 disease or any other disease, hand hygiene must be accessible to all. That is why leading consumer goods company, Procter & Gamble (P&G) has nudged this behaviour with its handwashing initiative launched to enable the sustainable practice of hand washing despite easing of lockdown measures in Nigeria.

Procter & Gamble, through its Safeguard® antibacterial soap brand led the handwashing revolution in Nigeria through the installation of contactless hand washing stations in high-risk areas such as markets and hospitals across a number of states in Nigeria including Lagos, Delta, Kwara, Kebbi, Katsina, Oyo, Ogun States and the Federal Capital Territory Abuja.

The scale of P&G’s handwashing stations in Nigeria is an ideal example of a public-private partnership which will contribute significantly to driving habit change in Nigeria given the dearth of hand washing or hygiene facilities across the country.

P&G has continued to leverage its unique brand to build and maintain a strong culture of health and hygiene. As part of its COVID-19 relief efforts in Nigeria, P&G donated over 100 million Naira worth of hygiene products across the 36 states – which included the launch of a nationwide handwashing campaign to raise awareness and deepen the understanding of the importance of hand washing with soap and water as an effective and affordable way to prevent the spread of diseases.

With all this set, the evidence is clear, every individual – mother, child, health worker and the entire community – can contribute to the health of all persons and tackle this COVID-19 pandemic just by the simple act of handwashing. It is common to say the power is in the hands of humanity, but this is truly a simple solution with far-reaching implications. As we engage in our daily activities now that most restrictions have been lifted, it is important to always remember to wash our hands and maintain proper hygiene.

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