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15.10.2008 Health

Hand washing: A basic step to personal hygiene

By Helena Selby - Ghanaian Chronicle

The washing of hands, especially with soap, is an extreme necessity, yet though very important, people do not give much attention to it. It is advisable to wash one's hands after a long days work, whether it looks dirty or not. Washing of the hands has been concluded to be a necessity, because a study identified that during a long days work, people engage in unconscious activities, such as shaking of hands, climbing of stairs, opening of doors, and many other activities. According to medical experts, day in day out the unconscious activities that people undergo, get them infected with many germs.

However because germs are very minute in nature, and can only be detected by a microscope, people find it very hard to see it with their naked eyes. In Ghana adults always tend to advice the younger ones to wash their hands after returning from school, and after playing. Nevertheless, these same adults do not follow the example they teach the younger ones. What's more, even if adults or children are prompted to wash their hands, they tend to do it using only water, instead of soap.

Hand washing in Ghana

Washing hand with water alone, a common practice around the world is significantly less effective, than washing hand with soap. Proper hand washing, requires soap, and only a small amount of water. Using soap works by breaking down the grease and dirt that carry most germs, facilitating the rubbing and friction that dislodges them, leaving the hands smelling pleasant and clean. The clean smell and feeling that soap creates are incentives for its use. With proper use, all soaps are equally effective at rinsing away diseases- causing germs. The hands should be washed with soap, after using the toilet, or cleansing a child's bottom, and before handling food.

After an in-depth research by the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, it was discovered that Ghanaians generally wash their hands with soap after using the toilet, or after cleaning up a child, and before handling food, eating or feeding a child. However, of all these washing of hands a few really wash with soap.

In 2003 it was discovered in a survey that only 2.7 of mothers were observed to wash their hands with soap after visiting the toilet, with 32% washing their hands with water only. Even fewer, 23%, wash their hands with water after disposing of child's faeces, while 63% did not wash at all. In schools, only 6.2% children were observed to wash hands with soap and after using the toilet, while over 72% did not wash their hands at all. Of nearly 1,000 children observed, only 5 washed their hands with soap before eating, though 43% did wash their hands with only water.

Importance of hand washing with soap

Hand washing with soap is among the most effective ways to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia, which together are responsible for the majority of child deaths. Every year, more than 3.5 million children do not celebrate their fifth birthday, because of diarrhoea and pneumonia. Hand washing can prevent skin infection, eye infections, intestinal worms, SARS and Avian Flu, and the benefits the health of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Hand washing is effective in preventing the spread of disease, even in overcrowded, highly contaminated slum environments, research shows.

The critical moments for hand washing with soap, are after using the toilet, or cleaning a child, and before handling food. It is important to ensure that people always wash their hands after these critical functions.

Hand washing with soap is the single most cost effective health intervention. Hand washing promotion is cost effective, when compared with other frequently funded health interventions. A $3.35 investment in hand washing brings the same health benefits as a $11.00 investment in latrine construction, a $200 investment in household water supply, and investment of a thousand dollars in immunisation. Investment in the promotion of hand washing with soap can also maximise the health benefit of investments in water supply and sanitation infrastructure, and reduce health risks when families do have access to basic sanitation and water supply services. Cost is not typically a barrier to hand washing promotions almost all households in the world already have soap, because it is common.

Studies have shown that hand washing with soap, reduces the incidence of skin diseases, eye infections like trachoma and intestinal worms. Hand washing reduces the rate of respiratory infection in two ways: by removing respiratory pathogens that are found on the hands and surfaces and by removing other pathogens (in particular, enteric viruses) that have been found to cause not only diarrhoea, but also respiratory symptoms.


Cleanliness has always being said to be next to godliness, with cleanliness being a criterion for good health and prosperity. No one consciously wishes for a disease, for they always surface in the body of a person without his or her knowledge. Refusing to wash one's hands has been considered a very bad habit, since it contracts a lot of diseases to the individual. According to the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, washing the hands with soap at all times, especially after using the toilet, and before handling food, goes a long way of reducing diarrhoea diseases by nearly one-half, and rate of respiratory infection by about one-quarter.

In Ghana diarrhoea is one of the most significant causes of illness and death for children under five, and accounts for 25% of deaths among children under five, and a total of 84,000 deaths a year, and more than nine million episodes of diarrhoea annually.

Most diarrhoea diseases are caused by the ingestion of excreta, and can therefore be prevented, by ensuring that faeces are kept out of the environment, through adequate sanitation, and ensuring the hands are washed thoroughly. That simple act of hand washing with soap, after using the toilet or cleaning up a child and before preparing or eating food or feeding a young child, can have a major effect on the lives and health of people. Diarrhoea diseases are often described as water-related, but more accurately should be known as excreta-related, as pathogens come from faecal matter. These pathogens make people ill, when they enter the mouth the mouth via hands that have been in contact with faeces, contaminated drinking water, unwashed raw food, unwashed utensils or smears on clothes. Hand washing with soap breaks the cycle.


Lack of soap should not be a barrier to hand washing at home. The vast majority of even poor households have soap in their homes. Research in periurban and rural areas found for instance, that though soap was present in 95% of households in Uganda, 97% in of households in Kenya and 100% of households in Peru, the problem is that soap is rarely used for hand washing. Lack of soap can be a barrier to hand washing in schools, especially in developing countries, where there is often neither soap nor the appropriate washing facilities. Building tippy taps and getting help from parent groups to supply soap or create a small fund for soap are good options.

In Ghana a lot schools add toiletries like soap and napkins and toilet rolls to pupil's prospectus, with the intention of using it to keep the children clean, however it is very sad to know that the compilation of these toiletries, are usually shared among the teacher themselves. Pupils despite the provision of such toiletries find it difficult even getting toilet rolls for the wash room, more or less soap for washing of hands after using the washroom. When it comes to KVIPs, there is nothing good to write home about, even keeping the place hygienic is a problem, how much more providing soap for washing hands.


Hand washing is a cornerstone of public health, and a hygienic behaviour and sanitary service and also a formidable ally in efforts to combat a host of other illness, such as worms, eye infections like trachoma, and skin infection like impetigo. It is therefore everyone's responsibility to help in the education of hand washing, owing to the fact that it is for our own good. A person with germ-ridden hands can go round shaking hands, and who knows you might be one of the people receiving the handshake.