Handwashing: Clean hands save lives

November 15, 2014
Handwashing: Clean hands save lives
Handwashing: Clean hands save lives
Hani Aldahri



JEDDAH — Staying healthy starts from simple steps, which at times, are skipped or neglected. Yet if only these are observed, it’s not only health that would matter, but life as well.

One of these that really matter is handwashing.  It’s so simple and if done properly, is like a “do-it-yourself” health vaccine. It involves five simple and effective steps – think wet, lather, scrub, rinse, dry – to reduce the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illness, among others.

Regular handwashing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs.

In Saudi Arabia, Unilever – one of the world’s leading suppliers of fast moving consumer goods, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, is spearheading this campaign, and recently conducted hadwashing activities with children to mark “Global Handwashing Day”.

Global Handwashing Day is an annual awareness day celebrated in over 100 countries worldwide on Oct. 15. It aims to put the global spotlight on handwashing with soap as a lifesaving habit.

In an interview, Khaled Fayed, Managing Director of Unilever KSA, said Unilever through its Lifebuoy brand, co-founded Global Handwashing Day in 2008 with the Public Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap (PPPHW) alongside UNICEF, P&G, USAID, the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Academy.

He underscored the importance of spreading awareness about this topic, because “the risk of infectious diseases, particularly for children, can’t be overstated. Forty percent of under-5 deaths occur in the first 28 days of life, the equivalent of nearly 3 million newborn babies accounting for nearly half of the 18,000 children under age five dying every day. Handwashing with soap is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia, which contribute massively to child mortality.”

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Q: Are those diseases fatal?

A: 18,000 children die every single day without seeing their fifth birthday, and Unilever is determined to address this issue in collaboration with global partners. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing with soap, are incredibly effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, particularly in children, especially with the fact that these diseases account for almost 3.5 million child deaths annually. Each year, 1.7 million children don’t reach their fifth birthday due to diarrhea and pneumonia. Diarrhea alone results in 3,000 children every day dying before their fifth birthday.

Q: Is handwashing really a life savior?

A: Handwashing with soap saves lives – that’s why Lifebuoy is aiming to change the handwashing behaviors of one billion people. Handwashing with soap at key occasions in the day can reduce diarrheal risk by about 45%. Pneumonia and diarrhea account for nearly a third of the deaths among children under five globally – that’s more than 2 million children every year. Many of these deaths are easily preventable through simple practices like handwashing with soap - one of the most effective and low cost ways to prevent disease. Handwashing with soap is a simple action, but one that can make a big difference. Everyone can help by telling friends and family about the importance of washing their hands with soap and get more people practicing this important, lifesaving habit.

Q: Are you able to achieve the desired results through such awareness campaigns?


A: In the last two years, Lifebuoy has already changed the handwashing behavior of 48 million people through its handwashing programs. Unilever’s Lifebuoy has already reached 183 million people since 2010 with its handwashing behavior programs.

Q: Is Unilever alone spreading these awareness campaigns and messages?

A: Unilever is proud to say that the support from the government entities in the Gulf as well as the NGO’s has been phenomenal. In Saudi Arabia, Unilever has partnered with the Ministry of Health and the Saudi Environmental Society (SENS) to organize visits to 10 schools in Jeddah. These visits aim to educate children about the importance of handwashing. Also, Unilever has partnered with SENS for an awareness campaign about the importance of handwashing to avoid the infection with Corona virus. In the UAE, Unilever has organized many campaigns and launched many initiatives partnering with the Ministry of Health, the Dubai Health Authorities as well as many public organizations and private companies such as Carrefour. In South Asia and Africa, Unilever is working to support the Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two thirds by 2015. The company has joined forces with USAID to mainstream handwashing with soap amongst mothers to combat child mortality.

Q: What would you require from governments?

A: Unilever calls on governments to ensure national public health and education strategies and resource policies to promote the benefits of handwashing with soap addressed. Also, Unilever wants them to recognize that through working with the private sector, these efforts can be scaled up. Finally, Unilever aims at initiating a multi-stakeholder strategy to address handwashing with soap. These should include the private sector, civil society and women’s groups.

Q: What are the most recent activities where you partnered with government entities?

A: Most recently, Unilever celebrated Global Handwashing Day in Saudi Arabia by visiting 10 schools to educate more than (2800) children about the importance of washing hands in Jeddah. The initiative was held in collaboration with the Saudi Ministry of Health and the Saudi Environment Society (SENS). In the UAE, Unilever held its inaugural Health Summit 2014, under the title “Hand in Hand Against Infection” in collaboration with the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) on the occasion of Global Handwashing Day.

Q: What kind of activities did Unilever implement when visiting schools in Saudi Arabia?

A: Each school visit included a short lecture on personal hygiene by the Ministry of Health as part of “Your Hygiene is Your Health” program.

Unilever representatives also demonstrated proper, effective handwashing techniques using portable Lifebuoy units. Finally, memory recall was facilitated through entertaining hygiene-related activities and games for the children.

Q: How were the results in Saudi Arabia?

A: The results were very encouraging for this campaign. Unilever and its partners visited 10 schools to educate more than (2800) children about the importance of washing hands in Jeddah. Unilever visited five primary girls’ schools, and an equal number of boys’ schools to inculcate the habit of handwashing so as to ward off infectious diseases. The delegation specifically targeted early elementary students in primary schools, with the aim of helping young children develop life-saving hygiene habits early in life. 

Q: How does this cause and those activities relate to your line of business?

A: Unilever believes that through brands like Lifebuoy, it can help and inspire billions of consumers to take small everyday actions like handwashing with soap, that can add up to a big difference for the world. As per the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, the company aims to help over a billion people globally take action to improve their health and well-being by 2020 through key actions and behavioral changes like regular handwashing with soap.

Q: So what is the commitment for Lifebuoy?

A: Lifebuoy is committed to saving lives through handwashing education by reducing diarrhea and pneumonia, the top two causes of deaths among children under five. Lifebuoy is committed to defeating diarrhea one village at a time. Lifebuoy aims to reduce the number of preventable diarrheal deaths in these villages through hygiene interventions like handwashing with soap. Previous adopted villages and other villages where the programs have been implemented have seen a reduction in diarrhea and other positive benefits such as children having higher school attendance.

Q: You mentioned the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, what is that about?

A: In November 2010, Unilever, one of the world’s leading FMCG companies and owner of global brands such as Dove and Lifebuoy, launched its global Sustainable Living Plan with the vision of doubling the size of the business, whilst halving its environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact.

Unilever has set out the Sustainable Living Plan, committing to a 10-year journey toward sustainable growth. The plan is very unique because it applies right across the value chain. Through the plan, Unilever is taking responsibility not just for its own direct operations but for its suppliers, distributors and - crucially - for how its consumers use Unilever brands.

The plan calls for improving the health and wellbeing of a billion people, enhancing the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, and halving the company’s global environmental footprint by 2020.

Q: Is this plan executed in the same way all over the world?

A: Not really, for example Unilever has modeled the MENA plan after the global Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Following Unilever’s global vision, Unilever MENA developed its own set of specific goals related to the Middle East in 2011. The Unilever MENA Sustainable Living Plan aims to improve the health and hygiene of over 50 million people, enhance the livelihoods of thousands of people and halve its environmental footprint.

Q: So why is it different?

A: Unilever MENA recognizes and acknowledges that the Middle East region is confronted by many challenges despite its yearly progress and prosperity. That’s why, and through the Unilever MENA Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever is working with its partners to raise awareness at consumer level change consumption habits while also optimizing manufacturing and sourcing processes.  — SG

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