By Admin | 15 Oct 2023

How big an impact does handwashing have on global health?

Washing our hands is a famous pillar of COVID-19 prevention, but it's been a strong global health focus for many years.


The COVID-19 pandemic saw us all become accustomed to regularly washing our hands.

As such, features like hand sanitising stations are commonplace in workplaces and retail and hospitality venues worldwide.

But what many people don’t realise is that handwashing has been front and centre of global health campaigns for many years.

Such is the focus on hand hygiene that it's subject to two health awareness days:

In addition to these health awareness days, several ongoing campaigns relate to hand hygiene, including the WHO's Clean Care is Safer Care campaign.

Why is there such a significant focus on handwashing?

It's easy to think handwashing doesn't warrant the focus it receives, especially if you're diligent about hand hygiene.

However, not everyone will share the same levels of diligence, often due to a lack of awareness around the importance of hand hygiene. We should also remember that many locations worldwide lack the facilities to ensure people can follow handwashing guidance to its fullest extent. This is often due to vital “bigger picture” issues, such as a lack of clean running water.

For example, medical facilities lacking the tools to facilitate proper handwashing means many patients and healthcare workers are at increased risk of acquiring healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), illnesses you acquire while in hospital.

That’s why awareness days like World Hand Hygiene Day and Global Handwashing Day often focus on funding and improving such facilities. Although they focus on the importance of hand hygiene on an individual level, the message from these awareness days stretches far beyond simply washing your hands!

In addition, there are many shocking statistics about hand hygiene even in high-income countries, so we cannot generalise this as a problem exclusive to low- and middle-income nations.

Days like World Patient Safety Day also touch on hand hygiene within and beyond their broader message and focus.

What does the data say about the impact of handwashing on healthcare outcomes?

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that hand hygiene is the single most effective action in preventing the spread of infection. Alongside safe vaccinations, access to clean water and handwashing facilities can save millions of lives worldwide every year.

Ahead of World Hand Hygiene Day 2023, the WHO highlighted the following vital statistics:

  • Appropriate hand hygiene and other infection prevention and control measures can reduce avoidable HAIs by up to 70%.
  • Investment in hand hygiene can achieve economic returns equivalent to up to 16 times the amount spent.
  • 50% of healthcare facilities in the least developed countries lack a basic water supply.
  • 1 in 10 patients who acquire an HAI will die from that condition.
  • Approximately 70% of healthcare workers and 50% of surgical teams don’t routinely practice hand hygiene.

While these statistics are all shocking, they become even more so when we look at the data related to the direct impact on patients and the human cost. The WHO's campaign pack also highlighted the following:

  • In high-income countries, 7% of all patients acquire at least one HAI in acute care hospitals.
  • This figure more than doubles to 15% in low- and middle-income countries.
  • In European Union countries, approximately 9 million HAIs are diagnosed annually in acute and long-term care facilities.

It is unsurprising that handwashing warrants two health awareness days per year with numbers like this.

How to improve your hand hygiene

Focusing on your hand hygiene is vital to safeguard your health and that of others around you.

There are many different guidelines regarding how often you should wash your hands. Some even suggest aiming to do so between six and ten times a day! But you don't need a fixed schedule! Instead, the truth is that you should aim to wash your hands:

  • After using the toilet or changing a nappy.
  • Before and after handling raw foods like meat and vegetables.
  • Before eating or handling any other foods.
  • Whenever they’re dirty or potentially carrying bacteria, such as after coughing, sneezing, or wiping your nose.

And yes, using an anti-bacterial hand sanitiser counts if you cannot wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and hot water.

How to improve the hand hygiene of those around you

No matter how much you focus on your hand hygiene, it is equally vital that those around you have the same diligence. The best way to encourage this is to provide gentle reminders about the importance of hand hygiene. This might mean speaking to your children about why they should wash their hands at certain times. At work – and maybe even at home – you could put signs in the toilet and near food preparation areas reminding people to wash their hands.

Better hand hygiene means you can live healthier, live happier!

While some people see needing to wash their hands as an inconvenience, the importance of hand hygiene takes on a new context when you review some of the statistics and related outcomes.

Practising good hand hygiene and encouraging those around you to do so means you can live a healthier, happier life and avoid losing precious time to illness.