Talking dirty: how to save a million lives
Int J Environ Health Res, 2003; 13 Suppl 1:S73-9
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Infectious diseases are still the number one threat to public health in developing countries. Diarrhoeal diseases alone are responsible for the deaths of at least 2 million children yearly - hygiene is paramount to resolving this problem. The function of hygienic behaviour is to prevent the transmission of the agents of infection. The most effective way of stopping infection is to stop faecal material getting into the child's environment by safe disposal of faeces and washing hands with soap once faecal material has contaminated them in the home. A review of the literature on handwashing puts it top in a list of possible interventions to prevent diarrhoea. Handwashing with soap has been calculated to save a million lives. However, few people do wash their hands with soap at these critical times. Obtaining a massive increase in handwashing worldwide requires a sea-change in thinking. Initial results from a new programme led by the World Bank, with many partner organisations, suggest that health is low on people's list of motives, rather, hands are washed to remove dirt, to rinse food off after eating, to make hands look and smell good, and as an act of motherly caring. Professional consumer and market research agencies are being used to work with the soap industry to design professional communications programmes to reach whole populations in Ghana and India. Tools and techniques for marketing handwashing and for measuring the actual impact on behaviour will be applied in new public-private handwashing programmes, which are to start up soon in Nepal, China, Peru and Senegal.
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