Handwashing with soap prevents deaths

What you need to know:

  • Unclean hands are the primary pathways for diarrhoea and pneumonia.
  • Handwashing with soap could save over 600,000 lives every year, most of these newborns.

Wednesday was the seventh Global Handwashing Day, an occasion to reflect on the life-changing significance of a seemingly routine and unthinking act: handwashing with soap.

Every year, about six million children globally do not live beyond the age of five.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 1.2 million newborns die every year, half of them within the first 24 hours of life.

Despite commendable progress in reducing the overall rate of under-five mortalities, the proportion of deaths during the first month after birth has increased.

Every day in Kenya, nearly 200 newborns die within the first month. The first 28 days are crucial for the survival of both mother and child.

Risk factors that increase neonatal mortality rates include poor hygiene during delivery and cord care, the absence of skilled birth attendants, and home birth. 

What is very difficult to bear is that most of these mortalities are the result of easily preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Unclean hands are the primary pathways for diarrhoea and pneumonia — today’s second and third biggest child-killers worldwide.

Handwashing with soap could save over 600,000 lives every year, most of these newborns.


According to the World Health Organisation, widespread provision of simple, low-cost interventions, such as immunisation and hygiene practices, particularly handwashing, could reduce neonatal mortality by up to 70 per cent.

For countries like Kenya where newborn mortality is high, adopting handwashing with soap as a standard practice before delivery and while handling newborns is not just important, it’s life-saving.

What mothers and their newborns need is a well-functioning health system to overcome these issues — one that offers health clinics and hospitals with running water, clean toilets, safe refuse disposal, and clean delivery tables.

Handwashing with soap and other interventions need to be consistent. New mothers and caregivers need support to learn improved hygiene practices to prevent infections among newborns. 

The Ministry of Health is working with development partners and the private sector to spread the adoption of good hygiene practices.

The country needs more advocates like First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who has championed improvements in maternal and child health through her “Beyond Zero Campaign”.

Mrs Kenyatta is ensuring that the issue is high on local and global development agendas, from running the London Marathon to raise money for mobile health clinics to supporting the integration of handwashing with soap in clinics in Wajir. 

More partnerships are needed to reach health centres across Kenya and to ensure that mothers are able to deliver in a hygienic environment and we are now in a long-term partnership with the government where we will be supporting them in their quest to ensure that no mother should die whilst giving life.

Dr Sidibe is the Global Social Mission Director for Unilever Lifebuoy.