Editorial: This year’s World Hand Hygiene Day is significant because of COVID-19 pandemic

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Every year on 5 May the world celebrates World Hand Hygiene Day. This year, as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the life-saving importance of clean hands has never been more prominent.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, says we can protect ourselves and our families by frequently washing our hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

“Hand hygiene – along with physical distancing, respiratory etiquette and disinfecting surfaces – is the basic preventive measure for a range of diseases, including COVID-19.”

In this context, several African countries are providing water to communities free of charge as part of the national response so that more people can wash their hands.

“WHO is working with countries, the World Food Programme and other partners to ensure health workers have essential supplies such as personal protective equipment, including gloves. In recent weeks we delivered replenishments to more than 50 African countries,” Dr. Moeti has observed.

However, the WHO Regional Director for Africa indicates that we urgently need to scale-up access to water across the continent.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one in four health-care facilities have no water service. An increasing number of facilities are producing alcohol-based hand rubs locally, but this is not a substitute for a safe, reliable water supply.

Basic handwashing facilities with soap and water are available in less than 50% of households in sub-Saharan Africa. In response to COVID-19, more and more handwashing points are being set-up – and we need to look at longer-term solutions to sustainably increase access, Dr. Moeti notes.

Over the past 20 years, progress on access to water in sub-Saharan Africa has been mixed. The number of people using unimproved sources remained the same; the number using surface water decreased by one-third; and the number of people travelling 30 minutes or more round-trip to collect water more than doubled, and this burden falls mainly on women and girls.

Thus, in celebration of World Hygiene Day which fell yesterday, the WHO Regional Africa office calls on governments, private sector partners, innovators, scientists and communities to invest in access to water for health facilities and households.

COVID-19 is shining a light on inequities in access to basic services, and we have an opportunity to improve access to water for vulnerable communities. The significance of the occasion should remind us all of the importance in providing clean, potable water for all citizens to observe good hygienic practices.

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