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Yesterday was World Health Day - another 'day' that would have escaped my attention had I not come across a report from the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute, which argues that global health has forgotten its most important weapon – hygiene. It says that while hygiene is vital in fighting off a whole range of diseases, policymakers and others fail to invest, promote, and research it, allowing vaccines, antibiotics and alternative treatments to take centre-stage instead.
"We are sounding the alarm to say, unless we increase investment in hygiene now, our other health interventions will only get us so far," notes Dame Sally Davies, UK special envoy on antimicrobial resistance. "We should not need to use antibiotics just because a person cannot or does not wash their hands properly." I couldn’t agree more. Diseases such as cholera, typhoid, intestinal worm infections and polio can all be contracted as a result of poor hygiene as too can flu and the common cold, along with, of course, Covid-19. While hand washing sounds simple even with clean water, the uptake of regular practices requires behaviour and social change within a community. This isn't always easy to achieve, especially if there’s a lack of resources, knowledge and skills – as our report on hygiene attitudes in India, below, shows so clearly.
Simon Sinclair, executive director of RGHI, believes this is why more research, investment and attention is needed “in the hygiene space”. He points out that there are still pockets around the world where there are vast clean water and hygiene gaps and says this must be remedied. Research in Bangladesh, for example, found that an estimated 4% of GDP per capita is spent on treatment for diarrhea, while two in five schools and one in four healthcare centres worldwide still lack basic hand-washing facilities.
Professor Albert Ko, professor and chair of epidemiology of microbial diseases, Yale School of Public Health, agrees that much more needs to be done beyond providing water and soap. “We need to identify what the barriers are to fixing these challenges and addressing these gaps,” he offers. “That requires research. From there, policymakers and figureheads can better allocate funding to eliminate the issues. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it's how important hygiene is to our health. It's important we continue the hygiene practices built during this time and carry that momentum forward to ensure everyone has what they need to maintain good hygiene and good health. We urge world leaders to pay more attention to hygiene as a critical weapon against viruses, infections and disease."
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7th April 2022