Hygiene and Health

How often do you wash your hands with soap? Before you eat? After using the restroom or changing a diaper? Before preparing food? When you wash, do you scrub for at least fifteen seconds with soap and water? Do you insist that your children, friends, and guests wash their hands, too?

In late 2005, the American Society for Microbiology conducted a survey of over 6,000 adults in public restrooms around the country. The survey found that although 91 percent of adults said they wash their hands after using public restrooms, only 83 percent actually did so. Overall, women washed their hands 90 percent of the time, while men washed theirs only 75 percent of the time![1]

Fortunately, in the United States and other economically advantaged countries, failing to wash one’s hands rarely leads to life-threatening illness. Our society has established enough disease blocking practices—customs and technologies that promote safe food preparation (e.g., clean kitchens, refrigerators), insect-control, and frequent water quality testing—to mitigate the consequences of our occasionally careless personal hygiene practices. Furthermore, students educated in wealthier countries tend to have more direct training in the hygiene-related topics, like germ pathways and the sources of infection and sickness. However, this is not always the case in developing countries, or the majority world.

In many places, simply failing to wash one’s hands can lead to fatal infection or disease. Thousands of children die every day of preventable water-borne diseases because they and others in their community are unaware of the dangers and simple methods of blocking disease transmission.

Hygiene training is a vital component of improved health. By preventing fecal-oral transmission of harmful pathogens, good hygiene practices can have a huge impact on the health of community. Because water-borne diseases like diarrhea are so dangerous to children under five, promoting hygiene – even getting people to wash their hands with soap – can save hundreds of thousands of lives each year.

Improving a community’s water supply generally reduces the risk of diarrhea by approximately 17 percent, but teaching handwashing with soap can reduce diarrhea by 48 percent![2] For this reason, Lifewater helps people not only access safe water through water projects, but also equips them with the knowledge, skills, and materials to use that water effectively.

Hygiene education is a cost-effective and sustainable way to promote good health, and it helps prolong the life of other helpful efforts, like water projects and wells. In Africa and Asia, Lifewater is teaching children the importance of washing hands with soap and helping to teach families to make inexpensive, water-saving handwashing devices (tippy-tap) to use at home and school.

Lifewater also teaches community members the safe water chain, or how to keep clean drinking water safe from the time they get it to the time it enters their body (distribution to consumption). People learn to dry their dishes on a dish rack after washing them in order to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. They learn to safely dispose of their feces (poop) so that it does not contaminate the water supply or find its way onto feet, food, or hands.

Lifewater’s mWASH program trains school teachers, government health workers, religious leaders, and other community leaders to practice and teach good hygiene. By explaining disease transmission and blocking techniques, demonstrating the skills necessary for healthy hygiene practices, and helping people acquire these assets with their own resources, we are building thriving communities and helping new safe water sources be more effective in fighting disease.


[1] “Recent Handwashing Study Shows Gap between Knowing and Doing,” American Society of Microbiology, Dec 2005,

[2] Sandy Cairncross et al., “Water, sanitation and hygiene for the prevention of diarrhea,” International Journal of Epidemiology 39 (2010): i193-i205.

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