What we learned about handwashing from published research in 2017

 
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Every year, the Global Handwashing Partnership summarizes the year’s peer-reviewed evidence related to handwashing with soap. Our 2017 research summary includes 117 studies and brings together additional evidence for the benefits of handwashing, new information on hygiene behavior change, and some surprising results of handwashing programming.

The summary breaks down what we learned in 2017 into categories like access to handwashing facilities, handwashing compliance, approaches to behavior change and drivers of handwashing behavior. Here, I highlight five studies that stand out to me.

Research improves handwashing programs by uncovering drivers of behavior change

 
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Evidence on the health and social benefits of handwashing is strong. We know that handwashing can prevent up to 40% of diarrheal diseases, and can lead to fewer school absences and increased economic productivity. However, many people don’t wash their hands at critical times, even when handwashing facilities are available. While research on behavior change has shown examples of approaches that lead to increased rates in handwashing, we’re still seeking to understand why people wash their hands, and how motivation for handwashing can be translated into programs that result in effective behavior change.

In celebration of Global Handwashing Day on October 15, USAID and the Global Handwashing Partnership – an international coalition with a Secretariat hosted by FHI 360 – organized a webinar on drivers for handwashing behavior change. The Partnership’s work focuses on promoting handwashing with soap as key to health and development, with an emphasis on connecting practitioners with research findings to inform their work. Our webinar speakers provided two examples of how research is exploring behavior change from cognitive (how we think about and understand handwashing) and automatic (how we can be unconsciously prompted to wash our hands) standpoints. In this blog post, I’ll summarize how the two examples show different ways of understanding human behavior and discuss how the findings help us understand what drives behavior change for handwashing.