A Crucial Approach to Public Health

It has been said before with numbing frequency, but probably the single most important public health measure in the world, and the cheapest, is simple regular and effective hand-washing.

It is also practiced with alarming rarity. A recent study found that only one of 25 mainland Chinese – 4 percent – washes his or her hands properly. When it comes to men, the percentage falls even more, to one in 35.

Poor sanitation is costing developing nations 3-7 percent of gross domestic product every year, according to Jon Lane, the executive director of the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), a Geneva-based NGO, “There is an urgent need to prioritize sanitation at national, regional, global and political levels."

Mao Qunan, a Chinese Ministry of Health spokesman, publicized the statistics on Chinese hand-washing last week, saying the report shows the urgent need for the government to intensify its efforts to promote personal hygiene as a public health measure.

World Health Organization guidelines say washing hands is essential: before eating; after going to the toilet, after completing a manual task or upon finishing work for the day; after handling money; and after visiting a hospital or coming into contact with someone who is sick. The process should include washing hands under running water with soap for at least 20 seconds.

India is attempting to solve the problem by enlisting Indian cricket players and Bollywood stars. The country’s most-celebrated movie star, Shah Rukh Khan, has become the brand ambassador for the WSSCC.

Enlisting cricket players builds on an idea derived from a similar venture in Africa with football players, which has proven a success, according to Thorsten Kiefer of the Water Sanitation for All (WASH) campaign, which is affiliated with the WSSCC. Yusuf Pathan and Irfan Pathan, two of India’s cricket stars, have made a video in which they ask people: "Adopt the WASH hat-trick - sanitation, hygiene, clean water - for healthy living".

WASH United is negotiating with other cricket players including Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni for promotion of hand washing, especially among children. Posters of the two Pathans are on display.

Using the power of sports, WASH United organizes activities in schools and reaches out to children to raise awareness about hygiene with a specific focus on hand-washing. In South Asia, WASH United is focusing particularly through cricket. The campaign is being extended though other cricket-loving South Asian nations - Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

"There is probably no other sport that unifies and moves billions of people in South Asia like cricket does," Keifer said. "Sanitation is a non-attractive subject but celebrities like cricket stars can make it sound cool and an excitement can be built around the issue."

Using sports stars was a success in Africa during the 2009 World Cup Football. More than 100 organizations in across eight nations - Lesotho, Kenya, Ghana, Burkino Faso, Mali, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. More than 100 international and local stars supported the cause, in particular football players Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack, who were used to educate children to the importance of handwashing, with considerable success -- 30,000 children were trained and became club members.

"South Asian nations too are facing a crisis situation,” said Kamal Kar, the development consultant and chairman of the Community-Led Total Sanitation Foundation of India. “Take the example of India where 600 million people go for open defecation every day although 700 million use mobile phones. The situation needs to be addressed through innovative ideas."

United Nations statistics show 1,000 children die in India from diarrhea, which is caused by poor hygiene and consuming unsafe and dirty water. The figure puts India at the top in the world in diarrhea ranking - much ahead of neighboring nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.

WASH United aims to intensify the campaign during the next international 20:20 cricket series, which is scheduled to take place in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively. It will involve cricket players from these nations to convey the message of sanitation, especially to children and youth.

(Alka Pande is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India and writes for Citizen News Service – Website: www.citizen-news.org)