Studies show that washing hands with soap is one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diseases: it can cut deaths from diarrhea by almost half and from acute respiratory infections by a quarter. On Saturday, people across the globe celebrated the fourth annual Global Handwashing Day. Last year, over 200 million people and more than 70,000 schools participated in events and celebrations.

A child washing their hands in Senegal. Photo Credit: Ryan Cherlin/USAID

But handwashing with soap is not an event it is a behavior.  Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps one can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. People all over the world wash their hands with water. But washing hands with water alone is significantly less effective than washing hands with soap in terms of removing germs.

Handwashing with soap works by interrupting the transmission of disease. Hands often act as vectors that carry disease-causing pathogens from person to person, either through direct contact or indirectly via surfaces. When not washed with soap, hands that have been in contact with human or animal feces, bodily fluids like nasal excretions, and contaminated foods or water can transport bacteria, viruses and parasites to unwitting hosts.

USAID works in partnership with host countries and to reduce diarrheal disease prevalence and improve child survival through sustainable improvements in three key hygiene behaviors: hand washing with soap, safe excrement disposal, and safe storage and treatment of drinking water at the household level. These health-focused interventions complement community and municipal water supply infrastructure programs by empowering households with the tools to protect their own health.

Creating lasting behavior change and ensuring handwashing with soap becomes a social norm are key components of hygiene and sanitation programs worldwide.  In Afghanistan, a USAID project is working with non-governmental organizations to train community health workers to teach families proper personal hygiene, especially hand washing. Because most family members in rural areas are illiterate, the community health workers use pictorial books to teach families.

When visiting families, they discuss how improved hygiene and hand washing with soap can improve the health of all family members, and how and where to set up a place for washing hands in the home.

Nafeesa, a mother in Shingan village in Takhar Province, said her children used to be sick with diarrhea often before a community health worker “explained how to wash our hands properly.”

Teaching older children the importance of frequent hand washing can also have short- and long-term benefits. Girls often have to help their mother feed and care for the younger children. After they become mothers themselves, they will be able to share the good hygiene practices with the next generation.

For more information, please visit www.globalhandwashingday.org