The #handhygiene community is gearing up for Global Handwashing Day on October 15th and the news is great! Some 80 countries, and over 200 million people are taking part and countless groups, corporations and organizations are working hard to raise awareness of the importance of hand hygiene from setting world records to launching nationwide programs.  It’s going to be a spectacular success in so many ways.

Of course, that’s if you live in the developing world.  In the developed world, at last glance, there doesn’t seem to be the same enthusiasm.  There are few scheduled activities to promote handwashing, few government officials are praising hand hygiene and there is little from the media about this day.

Not that they should be blamed.  After all, in most developed countries, the opportunities to wash or sanitize hands are ample.  There is no need to raise awareness about hand hygiene.  It’s a part of every day life.

After all, the developed world for the most part has safe water.

Historically, safe water has been critical to a hygienic society.  The perfect example of this is Rome, which thrived as one of the first ‘developed’ worlds some 2,000 years ago.  One of the reasons for the success of the city was the fact that in 312 BC, the Roman Senate decided to bring clean water to its citizens using the now infamous Aqueduct model.  Over the next 300 years, population growth was associated with an increase in aqueducts.  Over 1 million people lived comfortably in the city thanks to safe water.  By 410, when the Goths began their scourge of Rome, they killed the aqueducts and not soon after, Rome fell.  For the next millennium, Rome had no access to safe water and the city was rife with sickness and disease.  This time was known as the Dark Millennium although many prefer to call it the dirty millennium.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this historical association between hygiene and safe water is that during the Reformation, when the aqueducts returned, hygiene had to be re-learned by the inhabitants.  There had been too much passage of time to keep the lessons learned by their ancestors.  Only through rule of law and public teaching did Rome finally regain its hygiene and majestic presence.

For much of the developing world, the story is the same.

Some 15 years ago, about 3.6 billion people globally lacked safe water.  Thankfully, due to millions of dollars from organizations, companies and individuals, that number has been reduced to about 2.4 billion, an incredible achievement.  But imagine how hygiene fits in with these 1.2 billion people who have seen their conditions improve.  They can drink the water, bathe in it and wash their clothes in it.  These are natural anthropological needs.  But what about personal hygiene?  If the chance to live hygienically has never been an option, then why would these people be expected to know how to wash their hands on a regular basis?  They need to learn not only the benefits of keeping clean on a regular basis, but also how to do it.

That’s the true essence of Global Handwashing Day.  If we can bring awareness to a better life, people may take hold of hygiene, hand hygiene in particular, and both imagine and participate in a more sanitary society.  In return, prosperity will grow, middle classes may form and nations will find their way out of a stigma that continues to keep them down.

But does that relate to the developed world? Not really.  That’s why I have no ill-feelings to the developed world who apparently have little to do with Global Handwashing Day.  I don’t blame these nations for their business as usual mentality.  They have their separate problems and for many, they have donated significant amounts of money (some they may not be able to afford) to bring about the changes that allow this Day to occur.

What I do wonder, however, is why hasn’t the developed world instigated their own programs to bring awareness to the importance of personal and hand hygiene that has been so taken for granted?  Why don’t we have “National Wash Your Hands at the Office Day” or “Wash Your Hands at School Day”?  The WHO has done this for health care (with the Save Lives Day on May 5th) and countries all over the world recognize days, weeks and months to bring awareness to other diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  I just don’t quite understand why hygiene, which history has already shown is the basis for a civilized world, continues to be ignored.

Perhaps it’s because no one has put into numbers just how many people don’t follow proper hygiene and how that affects our bottom line.  In the United States, estimations suggest that an improvement in health care hygiene could return some five billion dollars to the economy.  A reduction in sickness in schools may bring about another five billion dollars in savings.  Reductions in foodborne illness through proper hand hygiene could save tens of billions of dollars and up to 75 billion might be saved through reduced absenteeism in the workplace.  So, through increased hand hygiene awareness, the United States alone could potentially see over 100 billion dollars in savings.

Is $100 billion dollars in the U.S. alone worth making one or more special days to promote hand hygiene?  I would say it most certainly is.  I just fear that those who can bring these days to reality are  simply washing their hands of the whole idea.

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