By Admin | 07 May 2022

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.


Since the start of 2020, we've all become well accustomed to washing our hands more regularly. Hand sanitising stations have become commonplace in workplaces and retail and hospitality venues worldwide. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, hygiene products like hand wash were routinely running low in shops worldwide.

While the pandemic saw handwashing become our number one hygiene focus, it’s been the subject 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 also 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 something as simple as handwashing doesn't warrant the focus it receives, especially if you've always been diligent about your hand hygiene.

However, not everyone has the same approach to keeping their hands clean, 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.

In particular, medical facilities lacking the tools to facilitate proper handwashing means many patients and healthcare workers are at increased risk of acquiring healthcare-associated infections (HAI). Essentially, an HAI is an illness you acquire while in hospital and not the one that led to your admission to a medical facility in the first place.

As such, 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 it would be wrong to generalise this as a low- and middle-income nations' problem.

Days like World Patient Safety Day also touch on hand hygiene within and on top of 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 access to safe vaccinations, access to clean water and handwashing facilities can potentially save millions of lives worldwide every year.

Ahead of World Hand Hygiene Day 2021, the WHO highlighted the following vital statistics:

  • Appropriate hand hygiene can reduce avoidable HAIs by up to 50%.
  • Investment in hand hygiene can achieve economic returns equivalent to the average of 16 times the amount spent.
  • 1 in 4 global healthcare facilities do not have basic water services. This means 1.8 billion people lack access to basic water services at their nearest healthcare facility, while 712 million use healthcare facilities with no running water.
  • 1 in 3 global healthcare facilities does not have hand hygiene stations and facilities directly available at the point of care.
  • Compliance with hand hygiene best practices when treating critically ill patients is only 9% in low-income countries.
  • However, even in high-income countries, compliance rarely exceeds 70%, when most of us would expect this figure to be consistently in the high 90%s.

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

  • 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, there are over 8.9 million HAIs diagnosed every year.
  • 1 million – nearly 25% - of the 4.1 million worldwide annual maternal and neonatal deaths may be related to unhygienic birthing environments, including the lack of hand hygiene.

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

What is the theme of World Hand Hygiene Day 2022?

The primary theme for World Hand Hygiene Day 2022, which takes place on 5th May 2022, is “Unite for safety: clean your hands.”

As in previous years, World Hand Hygiene Day includes individual messages and campaigns for different groups beneath the overall campaign message. These groups include:

  • Healthcare workers
  • Infection prevention and control practitioners
  • Quality and safety leads
  • Facility managers
  • Policymakers
  • Everyone using healthcare facilities

The WHO has produced a range of campaign materials for each of these groups, which are available here.

From a broader perspective, World Hand Hygiene Day occurs just a week after the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, so it could be an excellent opportunity to review your handwashing culture in your business.

How to get involved with World Hand Hygiene Day 2022

The easiest way to get involved with World Hand Hygiene Day 2022 is to take advantage of the resources the WHO has made available.

As well as the specific campaign materials available for the groups listed above, the WHO has also made available a poster maker and t-shirt design templates if you’re looking to get your family or work colleagues genuinely involved in raising awareness of the importance of hand hygiene in a global health context.