Thinking Aloud: “The Simple Power of Hand-Washing”

Nov. 6, 2014 by Darius 

According to Mali-born public health professional Dr. Myriam Sidibe, one of the most important, if underrated, tools to improve global public health is very mundane: soap.  In her talk, “The Simple Power of Hand-Washing,” Sidibe explains how soap can save lives.

According to Sidibe, hand washing can save up to 600,000 lives every year, most of them children and infants.  It is also one of the most cost-effective public health measures.  The reasoning is fairly simple: around the world, approximately four out of every five people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet.  The result of a lack of hand washing is that children especially pick up utterly preventable diseases in their homes.

It isn’t that soap is unavailable: in India, 90% of households have soap, while even in Ethiopia, the country with the least soap usage, 50% of households have soap.  Culturally, though, soap isn’t used for hand washing.  Instead, soap is sometimes treated like a precious commodity, to be used only for washing clothes, dishes, and bathing.

How can we promote hand washing?  As it turns out, there already exists a formidable network willing to do the promotion for us: soap companies.  Lifebuoy, a global brand of soap, actually started in Britain in the 19th century in response to a cholera outbreak.  Today, soap is saving lives in exactly the same way.

Thus, public-private partnerships have great potential, and incentive, for increasing the cultural prevalence of hand washing around the world.  Sidibe feels that soap is the greatest invention in the history of public health.  (She is not the only one: in the chemistry-of-history book Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History, the authors devote an entire chapter to the molecule in olive oil that, among other things, was the original basis of soft soaps in the ancient world and the consequences of the development of soap for public health.)

So grab a bar of soap and lather up.

You can watch Sidibe’s full TED Talk at

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