Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, talks about the importance of the hand washing campaign ‘Help a Child Reach 5’.

Watching more than 1,500 uniformed children at the Faranani Primary School in Soweto , South Africa standing quietly  listening to their teacher explaining the importance of hand washing with soap was an extraordinary lesson for me. 

Minutes later the children aged from 5-13 years erupted into a joyous song with accompanying hand movements showing their expert hand washing technique. It was clear that this was not the first time they had heard the hand washing talk and also that they understood and were proud of their accomplishment. There was lots of fun and laughter as the children playacting germs ( with scary masks)  were  vanquished by the smiling masks of the soap actors.
Last year, RSPH accredited its first ever education campaign which is now the world’s largest and most successful behaviour change campaign. The ‘Help a Child Reach 5’ education campaign was launched by Lifebuoy ( a Unilever soap brand) with the goal of saving the lives of 600,000 children globally who die each year before their 5th birthday as a result of infection causing diarrhoea.
According to WHO there are 4 billion cases of diarrhoea annually resulting in 4% of all deaths world- wide, the majority of them being babies and young children. The tragic fact is that these deaths are preventable by regularly washing hands with soap.
The ‘Help a Child Reach 5’ Campaign aims to reach a billion people and thus far the hand washing with soap education programme is in 24 countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and China and has reached 150 million people to date.
The programme is rolled out in schools where education specialists explain not only why hand washing is so important but also show them how to wash their hands properly, at least 5 times a day. The children keep hand washing diaries, learn new songs so that the behaviour is normalised. Another advantage is that the children can teach their families about hand washing so extending the reach of the campaign.
I was in Johannesburg to speak at the launch of the campaign in South Africa and to visit Faranani primary school to see the education programme in action. I also visited the Zola Clinic in Soweto to see the hand washing campaign in the neo natal clinic.
These extraordinary efforts to improve the life chances of ‘ young children are making a significant difference and it was a privilege to share the stage in Soweto with Dr. Myriam Sidibe, hand washing expert and architect of the ‘ Help a child reach 5 campaign. Global Hand Washing Day was her idea and accepted by the UN Secretary General to highlight the importance of hand washing with soap to improved health.
We forget at our peril that the simplest actions are often the most important and that prevention is always better than cure.