By Karl Hofmann, President and CEO, Population Services International. This originally appears in the CSR Wire blog.
Have you washed your hands today? Probably not enough.
In Washington, D.C., the consequences aren’t too severe. A few more colds and coughs than any of us wants or needs, but probably not much more than that. Elsewhere in the world, for billions of people, the consequences can be far more serious, absurdly serious. Even fatal.
Global Handwashing Day is a good occasion to remind us of the importance of this deceptively simple public health intervention. As Unilever’s Myriam Sidibe noted in her recent column, more than two million children lose their lives every year to preventable causes such as diarrhea and pneumonia – largely because they are not washing their hands.
As in so many other areas of global health, strong and targeted public-private partnerships can make a huge difference in addressing this challenge.
Realities & Gaps: Influencing Millions
A chief lesson learned from Population Services International’s [PSI] 40 years of experience in global health is that there is a need for robust distribution networks for health products and services. Moreover, these networks must be accompanied by communication campaigns, which educate families about health issues that affect their communities and motivate them to adopt healthy behaviors.
For example, it is important to ensure that a rural store has a constant supply of soap to sell to local families. However, it is equally as important to help those local families understand why buying and using that bar of soap consistently will help protect their health, and to create drivers that encourage them to do so.
It’s easier said than done of course.
The public sector does not have the capacity to address these dual needs alone. Constrained public budgets necessitate new approaches, new business models, and new partnerships to ensure that life-saving products and information reach families, regardless of whether they live in an urban setting or a rural community.
Today, new partnerships between NGOs like PSI and companies like Unilever, Alere, and Merck are responding to these gaps, creating game-changing health solutions that can be replicated on a global scale.
Establishing Win-Win Partnerships
These private-public partnerships for health work because they are symbiotic.
NGOs benefit from corporate ideas, innovation, consumer insight, and a constant pursuit of “the next best” health technology or tools that can help turn the tide against major threats to global health. Conversely, companies benefit from NGOs’ on-the-ground understanding of local markets and health realities, as well as their strong relationships with local governments. Combined, these factors help position companies to enter new markets, grow their businesses, and save lives in the process.
Simple Directive, Tough Habit: Saving Lives Through Handwashing
A new initiative launched in 2012 between Lifebuoy (Unilever’s leading soap brand), PSI (one of the Unilever Foundation’s global partners) and local governments is focusing on establishing behavior change programs in schools and communities across Kenya, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe – three countries where handwashing with soap practices are low.
In Kenya, for example, 28 percent of school children report washing their hands with water at key times during the day, yet only 1 percent report using soap.
This simple act of handwashing with soap can significantly reduce the number of deaths among children due to diarrhea and pneumonia — two of the leading killers of children in these target countries. The new Unilever-PSI initiative will help children get into a habit of correctly and consistently washing their hands with soap at critical times of the day.
Using Lifebuoy soap products and communication materials, teachers and community health workers will work to change behaviors among school aged kids through handwashing programs and activities, such as song writing, comic books, and even hand washing pledges.
We know that when children learn and understand healthy behaviors, they help pass life-saving information to their families at home and future generations – setting off a powerful ripple effect.
Together PSI and Unilever aim to reach over 250,000 school aged children and their families in Kenya, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe over the next year to help them build better handwashing habits. Through these three pilot programs, Lifebuoy, the Unilever Foundation, and PSI hope to prove the efficacy of this approach, and replicate the program at scale across a number of countries.
In doing so, we move closer to realizing our mutual goal of impacting the health and hygiene behaviors of one billion people by 2015. Will you join us?
Join the conversation with Unilever, PSI, and its partners at #IWashMyHands as we launch a worldwide dialogue to push handwashing up the global health agenda. Visit PSI’s homepage, weigh in on Twitter, make a pledge on Facebook – and spread the word.