Our Education Clinics teach the importance of handwashing to keep children and adults in Haiti, and everywhere, healthy. But why exactly is hand washing important and effective? The answer is for many reasons.
The hands are the last line of defense against exposure to pathogens (a bacterium, virus, or other microorganisms that can cause disease) that can cause diseases. Pathogens can be transmitted directly from unclean hands to the mouth, eye, nose or other areas of the skin, or indirectly by handling food or water. Diarrhea, respiratory infection, and trachoma are all infectious disease that can be prevented by hand washing with soap.
If hand washing is so important, then why isn’t everyone doing it? Hand washing is about behavior; changing handwashing practices means changing behavior. Change can be difficult for many people. We all have our routines and habits that we feel comfortable with and enjoy. It is hard for people – especially adults – to change a behavior that we have been doing for most of our lives. Habitual behaviors are often learned at an early age. The longer someone has been practicing a behavior, the harder it will be for him or her to change.
Knowing is not enough. Knowing why, how and when to wash hands is no guarantee that people will actually do it. It is now understood that educating people to practice good hygiene because it has health benefits will usually not result in long-term behavior change.
When we should wash our hands
Before preparing food
After going to the latrine or to the bathroom
After changing diapers or otherwise coming into contact with feces
After returning from the field
Before feeding or breastfeeding a child
Questions about hand washing
Who should wash their hands?
Everyone. Sometimes hands get dirty and don’t appear dirty but they can still transmit germs. If children are unable to wash hands by themselves, and adult should help them.
With what should we wash out hands?
We should wash our hands with water and soap. You should use the cleanest water possible to wash your hands. If enough treated water is available, such as water treated wit ah filter, it should be used to wash hands. If there is only enough treated water for drinking and preparing food, then untreated water from the cleanest source should be used for washing hands.
Why is using soap important?
Handwashing with soap significantly reduces the number of pathogens on hands compared to washing with water alone. Soap helps break down the grease and dirt that carry the largest concentration of pathogens. As well, using soap means that more time is spent rubbing hands together to later and rinse off the soap. The friction helps to dislodge more grease and dirt, and consequently pathogens.
With proper use, all soaps are equally effective at removing pathogens that cause diarrheal disease and respiratory infections. Antibacterial soap is not better than regular soap at stopping the spread of disease.
If I don’t have soap, what can I use as a substitute?
If you do not have soap soil and mud are often used in low-income communities as a free alternative to soap for hand washing. However, there some concerns that using these materials are associated with health risks. Soil and mud are often used in low-income communities as a free alternative to soap for hand washing. However, there are some concerns that using these materials are associated with health risks. Soil and mud maybe contaminated with pathogens (bacteria, viruses, protozoa, helminthes) from open defecation or using sewage to irrigate crops, and ash may contain toxic materials depending on what was burned to create the ash, such as plastic or chemicals.
Despite the potential health risks, it is believed that using clean and dried soil and ash is preferable to using nothing at all since they are more effective in removing microorganisms from hands that water alone.