By Myriam Sidibe, Global Social Mission Director, Unilever-Lifebuoy
It’s common knowledge that prevention is better than cure; yet, every year an estimated 2 million children don’t reach their fifth birthday due to the largely preventable diseases diarrhea and pneumonia. Prevention need not be complicated; for diarrhea and pneumonia the simple practice of regular handwashing with soap is one of the most effective and low-cost public health interventions available.
From a health and hygiene perspective, the power of prevention is massive.
Saving 600,000 Lives Every Year
Research demonstrates that handwashing with soap reduces the risk of diarrhea by 45 percent, pneumonia by 23 percent, and improves levels of school absenteeism by approximately 20 to 50 percent. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates handwashing with soap could save the lives of over 600,000 children every year - the equivalent of 10 jumbo planes of children saved every day [UNICEF].
While most people do have access to soap, the number of people who regularly wash their hands at the right times – such as before eating and after using the toilet – is worryingly low. For example, India is the leading market for Unilever’s health soap brand, Lifebuoy, in terms of soap penetration – 99 percent of homes report having soap present - yet the country has the highest child mortality related to diarrheal disease. Further, across a global review of 11 countries, the average rate of handwashing after using the toilet is only 17 percent. This dips as low as 3 percent in Ghana and 1 percent in rural India.
And this reality is not just confined to countries where child mortality is high – rates of handwashing in the U.K. and U.S. are surprisingly low - proving that handwashing with soap is by no means an integral part of everyone’s daily routine.
Addressing the Gap Between Hygiene and Prevention
Unilever’s health soap brand, Lifebuoy, is uniquely placed to address this gap and help reposition hygiene habits as new norms, especially where a new habit can mean a matter of life and death. Right from the beginning, Lifebuoy was born as a brand with a social purpose – it was literally marketed as a “lifesaving product” to help Victorian England tackle cholera outbreaks.
Well over 100 years later, Lifebuoy still saves lives by making handwashing with soap a reality for millions of people. Indeed, today Lifebuoy reaches over 55 countries including eight out of the 10 countries with the worst childhood mortality related to diarrhea disease. Every second, 111 mothers across Asia, Africa and Latin America buy a Lifebuoy product to help protect their families’ health and hygiene.
But there are clear challenges, despite our widespread reach. So in addition to our historical efforts, Lifebuoy has set out a bold and ambitious challenge to positively impact the health and hygiene behavior of one billion people by 2015, a commitment that was publicly stated as part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in 2010.
Whilst inspiring people to change their behavior is not easy, getting them to integrate these new behaviors into their daily routine is even more challenging. We have learned so much about how to influence habits and constantly build these insights into our programs.
Influencing Behavior: Affecting Social Norms & Commitments
For example: fear of diseases is not a motivator; peer pressure is crucial. Habits don’t come over night and need to be practiced for a certain period of time before they become ingrained in a daily routine. Pledging in front of people that matter encourages people to hold themselves accountable and stick to their commitment.
And we don’t stop there! We partner with leading hygiene, behavioral sciences, marketing and digital experts to ensure that our behavioral change program continues to resonate effectively with mothers and children across the world.
Our results are increasingly encouraging. We have seen double-digit growth in soap consumption along with a direct correlation with an increase of handwashing habits at crucial occasions in key countries. We also see that our results last beyond the duration of the program, giving us even more confidence in our ability to make a difference to society as well as the bottom line.
Now we have taken this collaborative approach one step further by partnering with public organizations and governments to expand and deepen our expertise, maximize our resources, share costs and, most importantly, ensure greater scale and impact. With organizations like Populations Services International [PSI], Millennium Villages Project [MVP], Water, Sanitation for the Urban Poor [WSUP], London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine [LSHTM] and governments across the world, we are scaling up our handwashing programs and enhancing the health impact of our programs.
Millennium Development Goal 4
This approach is going to prove crucial as we work with our partners to make handwashing with soap a reality for all and achieve Millennium Development Goal 4 to reduce child mortality levels by two thirds. However, there is so much more we can do.
We are increasingly pioneering new models of co-investments from both public and private sector resources to ensure the scale of hygiene promotion programs is enhanced and targeted towards the most vulnerable demographics– under-fives and their families in most at need countries. Of course, there has been skepticism along the way. But it is diminishing as levels of scientific proof and the long-term commitment we put forward in our joint programs show increasingly positive results.
As we gear-up to celebrate this year’s Global Handwashing Day on October 15th, let’s put the spotlight on governments, international institutions, civil society organizations, NGOs, and the soap industry to push hygiene up on the global health agenda and unlock the true potential of handwashing with soap.
Everyone has a role to play and can help by telling friends and family about the importance of washing their hands with soap to get more people practicing this important, lifesaving habit. You can also show your support and help more children reach their fifth birthday by pledging on our Facebook page. With every pledge, Lifebuoy and its partners will help more children receive hygiene education through their dedicated handwashing behavior change programs.
Editor's Note: Join the conversation with Unilever and its partners at #IWashMyHands as they launch a worldwide dialogue on pushing handwashing up the global health agenda. Weigh in on Twitter, make a pledge on Facebook -- and let's join hands on saving 600,000 children every year.
About the Author:
Myriam Sidibe is Lifebuoy’s Global Social Mission Director and is one of the only people in the world with a doctorate in public health, focused on handwashing with soap. She has spent 14 years working with thousands of children understanding the most effective ways to get them to wash their hands with soap at key occasions like before eating or after using the bathroom. Myriam leads Social Mission activity in 55 countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America with the aim of changing handwashing behaviors of one billion people by 2015 – that’s the biggest hygiene behavior change program in the world.
Myriam is one of the driving forces behind the creation of Global Handwashing Day, which recognizes the need to raise awareness of handwashing with soap as a simple but lifesaving habit that can prevent disease. She represents Unilever and often partners with organizations such as Millennium Villages, the World Bank, PSI, WSUP, MCHIP and USAID to educate people about the importance of handwashing with soap, and run programs that will help form healthy handwashing habits for life.