The vital role of handwashing in preventing disease in Nigeria

IN the bustling cities of Lagos, Port Harcourt, Aba, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano and Abeokuta as well as many serene villages, towns and cities scattered around Nigeria, a simple act stands as a powerful defense against the myriad of diseases and illnesses that plague our nation. This is the act of handwashing. This everyday practice and simple hygiene ritual often overlooked in the haste of daily life is crucial in our collective fight against infectious diseases. As Nigeria grapples with public health challenges, from cholera outbreaks, Lassa fever, and many other diseases of public health importance, handwashing as a powerful tool to mitigate these health challenges cannot be overlooked. Handwashing with soap and running water for a couple of minutes is one of the most effective and affordable ways to prevent the spread of diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that handwashing can reduce the risk of respiratory infections such as common cold by 16 per cent and diarrheal diseases such as cholera, dysentery and others by up to 40 percent. In Nigeria, where healthcare resources are often stretched thin and access to medical facilities can be limited, simple preventive measures such as handwashing can come in handy and even become critical in preventing diseases and illnesses.

In our diverse and vibrant country where traditional practices and modern lifestyles blend, promoting handwashing requires culturally sensitive and practical approaches. The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental in raising awareness amongst the populace of the importance of this practice. Yet it can be seen that the awareness and compliance to hand washing measures for COVID-19 has waned with the passing of the pandemic. We are sadly back to our old ways. In many rural areas, and even some parts of the urban cities, water scarcity is a significant barrier. Here, the introduction of tippy taps – simple handwashing devices made from jerry cans or plastic bottles – can make a world of difference. These low-cost, locally made devices ensure that handwashing is accessible even in communities where water is a precious commodity. These devices are sometimes present in some restaurants and other places where people use them. There must be improved efforts by restaurants, schools, churches, mosques, banks, government offices and different establishments to make hand washing facilities available and accessible to all who come into their establishments.

In urban centers, where the pace of life is fast and the population density high, public awareness campaigns are essential. These campaigns need to be visible in markets, churches, mosques, night clubs, eateries, relaxation spots, amusement parks, banks, bus stops, schools, and workplaces as a constant reminder or even irritant in other to drive this message home. The use of radio jingles in local languages, posters, and community dramas can effectively communicate the importance of handwashing. Radio stations and mass media organizations must help propagate this message of hand washing. Our Nollywood stars, comedians, skit makers and top rated musicians can also play a pivotal role in endorsing this life-saving practice, leveraging on their influence to inspire millions especially through their craft and massive social media presence and influence. Schools are another critical battleground for this battle to improve our compliance with handwashing in Nigeria. Educating our children, adolescents and young adults about handwashing not only protects their health but also creates good habits that will be carried into adulthood. School programs that include handwashing stations and regular hygiene education can instill lifelong practices in our future leaders. It is encouraging to see some schools already incorporating these lessons, but there is a need for a more coordinated nationwide push both from the ministry of health, informed members of the academia and intelligentsia, non-governmental and non-profits organizations as well as the national orientation agency to ensure all schools prioritize this.

The fight against diseases like cholera and COVID-19 has highlighted stark disparities in our public health infrastructure even between urban centers and remote locations in Nigeria. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, handwashing stations became more prominent in public spaces, but this should not be a temporary measure. Maintaining and even increasing the number of these facilities can help curb the spread of other infectious diseases, which remain a threat long after the pandemic subsides. Moreover, our healthcare facilities must lead by example. Hospitals, health centers, maternity home dispensaries, clinics and other healthcare facilities must ensure that handwashing stations are readily available and that both healthcare workers and patients adhere to strict hand hygiene practices. This not only protects healthcare workers but also reduces the risk of hospital-acquired infections, which can be devastating by causing an increase in healthcare costs and reduction in productive man hours.

The government at federal, state and local levels also have a crucial role to play by providing the infrastructure and resources necessary for widespread handwashing. Community leaders, religious institutions, businesses, and individuals all have a part to play. By fostering the culture of hand hygiene, we can protect our communities and reduce the burden on our healthcare system. This simple practice goes a long way in protecting the health of the populace and reducing the spread of infections and communicable diseases. In conclusion, handwashing is a simple yet powerful tool in preventing the spread of disease in Nigeria. It requires minimal resources but offers immense benefits. By prioritizing handwashing, we can take significant strides towards improving public health, reducing healthcare costs, and saving lives. Let us all, from the bustling streets of Lagos to the quiet corners of our rural communities, embrace this practice with the seriousness it deserves. In doing so, we protect not just ourselves, but our entire nation, reduce cost and also reduce the pressure on our already belabored healthcare system.

  • Dr. Umezurike writes in from the Department of Biological Sciences Lead City University, Ibadan.

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