Photo: Lifebuoy-PSI’s ‘School of 5’ program in action – Credit: Jackie N. Presutti 2013

Why Handwashing Matters

By Dr Angus Spiers, Deputy Director, Child Survival, PSI

Why Handwashing Matters

Working in almost 70 countries means I spend a lot of time traveling and meeting people. A father of small children myself, I try to start my day in the villages I visit getting to know the lay of the land with the kids, kicking a soccer ball around, or just goofing off as kids like to do.

When it’s time to leave, I usually play one last game. About handwashing. Yes, handwashing…

Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective tools to stop the spread of disease, yet in many households worldwide it’s a low priority. Bathing, laundry and washing dishes are often higher on the list than getting kids to handwash with soap. Generally parents realize that handwashing is important, but what they don’t always know is that soap can help eliminate the diseases that can kill their children.

Poor hygiene contributes significantly to diarrhoeal disease, one of the leading causes of death and sickness among children below the age of five in Kenya. By ensuring that homes have access to clean water, decent sanitation and that kids practice proper hygiene, we can eliminate unnecessary sickness and death.

Many parents in the developing world view diarrhoea as part of a normal childhood, so we must make a more direct connection for parents about disease and soap – see www.youtube.com/helpachildreach5.

Working with Unilever Foundation, Lifebuoy (the world’s number one germ protection soap) and the Government of Kenya, PSI implemented behavior change programs in schools and communities promoting handwashing with soap. The ‘School of Five’ program uses Lifebuoy soap products and specially-developed communication materials, enabling teachers and local health workers to help change behavior through fun handwashing programs and activities. Children learn that handwashing is important by making the process fun. Comics, games, handwashing diaries, reward stickers and posters encourage handwashing practice and provide kids with exciting talking points to share at home, at play, and in their communities.

It’s a method that PSI uses across the world – whether you call it ‘edutainment’ or ’social marketing’- it’s using lessons from the traditional marketing of products like a can of soda or a new movie to build interest for new products and services that promote healthy living.

Marketing tactics are used to inform people about the availability of a product, about adopting a new behavior and the difference that a service can make in their lives. Just as with a new bag or a new phone, appealing packaging and catchy messaging builds desire so that health consumers want to consume more.

Instead of just ‘wash your hands because I told you to’, the campaign helps makes handwashing a fun and desirable activity.

We use these techniques because we believe that markets, and the people who live within these markets, are a powerful force in the effort to end poverty. And that children are ideal agents of change (fellow parents, bear in mind the strength of ‘pester power’). Unlike a new bag of sweets, marketing healthy behavior within schools can translate to new knowledge and skills in the household and community-wide. That’s when we start to see real change.

To ensure our work in Kenya is sustainable, the program is part of the national-level school health policy – so there’s strong local ownership. Working within the education system to identify shared interests, exchange expertise, and promote handwashing with soap is critical for success.

Fewer cases of diarrhea and disease due to handwashing means more children reach their fifth birthday – a critical age when kids immune systems become strong. When kids are healthy, they get an education and become productive adults, grow their local economies and ensure those markets remain strong for the future.

This is how we hope to build a better planet. Working with likeminded partners across the world, we can all help make handwashing second nature for kids.

After all, it’s something I instil in my own children every day.

Editor’s Note:

This blog is one in a five-part series with Unilever-Lifebuoy.

Click here to donate to the Lifebuoy Help a Child Reach 5 Campaign.

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