Preventing disease through promotion of handwashing with soap

Globally, there are more than 1.7 billion cases of diarrhoea every year, with 760,000 children dying from the disease, making it the second leading cause of death in children under five.

The School has been at the forefront of international efforts to prevent diarrhoeal disease, coming up with innovative campaigns to promote the importance of handwashing with soap.

Research by Val Curtis, reader in hygiene at the School, and Sandy Cairncross, professor of environmental health, in 2003 found that handwashing with soap could save up to one million lives a year, with further research showing that it was one of the most cost effective interventions to prevent disease in developing countries.

Between 200 and 2007 Curtis led a team conducting field research into handwashing behaviour in 11 countries using a combination of focus groups, behaviour trials and observations. They identified why people wash their hands, insights that were key in informing handwashing promotion programmes and changing behaviour.

In 2002 Curtis brought together a coalition of partners including non-governmental organisations and industry to form the Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, which, with the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, launched a nationwide campaign in 2003. An evaluation found that 71% of Ghanaian mothers knew the television advertisement and handwashing rates increased significantly.

The partnership highlighted the benefits of public-private co-operation, and Curtis has successfully exploited private sector marketing and advertising techniques. Her research that a quarter of male commuters’ hands and more than one in 10 mobile phones in the UK are contaminated with faecal bacteria hit the headlines in 2011, with more than 200 media mentions.

On 15 October 2008 Curtis helped launch the first Global Handwashing Day, which has snowballed each year, with the most recent estimate calculating it has reached one billion people. In 2012 160,000 Haitian school children watched handwashing demonstrations, six million noodle packs in Nepal carried the campaign logo and in the UK the bath and shower gel brand, Radox, put Global Handwashing Day stands into every Sainsbury’s supermarket.

Curtis has also harnessed the power of social media and on 15 October 2012 #iwashmyhands trended globally on Twitter.

Partly thanks to Curtis’ creative work, backed up by hard evidence, handwashing is now firmly on the agenda of most Government and development agencies around the world. This has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the number of children under the age of five dying every year from diarrhoeal disease has dropped from 1.2 million to 850,000 between 2000 and 2010.