By Dr Bilal Shirazi | 05 May 2021

How big an impact does handwashing have on global health?

Washing our hands became famous as a central pillar of COVID-19 prevention throughout 2020. However, 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 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 the shops.

While the pandemic has seen 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, there are also several ongoing campaigns related to hand hygiene, including the WHO’s Clean Care is Safer Care campaign, which initially launched in 2005.

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're someone who has 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 vast numbers of patients and healthcare workers exposed to increased risk of acquiring what are known as healthcare-associated infections (HAI). Essentially, an HAI is an illness you acquire while in hospital and not the illness for which you were admitted 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!

However, there are also some shocking statistics around hand hygiene even in high-income countries, so it would be wrong to generalise this is a problem unique to low- and middle-income nations.

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.

As part of its campaign pack for World Hand Hygiene Day 2021, the WHO highlights the following vital statistics:

  • Appropriate hand hygiene can reduce avoidable HAI’s 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 does not have basic water services. This means that 1.8 billion people do not have 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. This figure will likely have grown substantially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will be interesting to view the numbers when this data becomes available.
  • 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.

With numbers like this, is it any surprise that handwashing warrants two health awareness days per year?

What is the theme of World Hand Hygiene Day 2021?

The primary theme for World Hand Hygiene Day 2021, which takes place on 5th May 2021, is “SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands.”

Underpinning this primary message are individual messages for different people, including:

  • Healthcare workers.
  • Healthcare facility managers.
  • Healthcare policymakers.
  • Hospital patients and their families.
  • Anyone involved in vaccinations, including administering COVID-19 vaccines.

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

How to get involved with World Hand Hygiene Day 2021

The easiest way to get involved with World Hand Hygiene Day 2021 is to take advantage of the resources the WHO has made available at the above link.

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.

By Dr Bilal Shirazi

Dr. Bilal has more than 17 years of experience working across clinical medicine and the health insurance sector, with particular expertise in health insurance administration and operations. In addition to his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree (MBBS), he has an MBA and is an Associate Member of the Life Office Management Association (LOMA).  

See Dr Bilal Shirazi's profile