WASH and Pneumonia

Wins1The Problem—Childhood Morbidity

Acute respiratory infections like pneumonia are the leading cause of death in children under the age of five, killing an estimated 1.3 million children annually.[1] Every year, pneumonia kills more children than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.[2] Despite these alarming figures, children can be protected from pneumonia with simple interventions like handwashing with soap.

WASH and Prevention

Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent pneumonia, reducing the risk of infections by 25 percent.[3] Transmission of respiratory viruses from children to others can be reduced with improved WASH measures.[4]

Research shows a causal relationship between pneumonia and poor living conditions. In these households, children are repeatedly exposed to viral and bacterial infection.[5] Since hands are the principal carriers of disease-causing germs, washing them with soap at critical times (i.e. after using a toilet, cleaning a child’s bottom, and before handling food) reduces rates of pneumonia. Secondary benefits from handwashing include prevention of diarrhea, skin and eye infections, intestinal worms, SARS, and Avian Flu.[6]

Soap: A Key Investment

Though handwashing with soap is proven to ward off disease, it is seldom practiced and rarely promoted. Without soap, handwashing is significantly less effective. Soap increases the time individuals spend washing their hands and breaks down grease and dirt that carry the most disease-causing germs.

Cost and availability are not barriers that keep individuals from using soap. A recent study found that the majority of poor households have soap. Soap was available in 95 percent of homes in Uganda, 97 percent of homes in Kenya, and 100 percent of homes in Peru. Despite availability, most of these homes were using soaps for laundry and cleaning, not handwashing.7 Educating mothers, the primary caregivers of the home, on the importance of handwashing may contribute to compliance with simple prevention and control measures such as handwashing with soap. Investing in handwashing can also maximize health benefits of investing in water supply and sanitation infrastructure.

For more information, contact Cecilia Snyder, 202-293-4003, csnyder@WASHadvocates.org


[1] Liu, L., et al., 2012. Global, regional, and national causes of child mortality: An updated systematic analysis for 2010 with time trends since 2000. The Lancet, 379 (9832) 2151-216. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60560-1/fulltext

[2] WHO, 2013. Pneumonia Fact Sheet No331. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs331/en/

[3] Rabie, T. & Curtis, V., 2006. Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review. Tropical Medicine and International Health 11(3):258-67. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16553905

[4] Jefferson, T., et al., 2011. Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://www.thecochranelibrary.com/userfiles/ccoch/file/CD006207.pdf

[5] Victoria, C., et al. (2003), Wagstaff, A., et al. (2004), and Coles, C., et al. (2005) as cited in Thörn, L., et al., 2011. Pneumonia and poverty: a prospective population-based study among children in Brazil. Biomed Central Infectious Diseases. 11:180. http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2334-11-180.pdf

[6] UNICEF. Global Handwashing Day Planner’s Guide: Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.unicef.org/malaysia/FAQ_on_Handwashing_with_Soap.pdf

[7] Ibid.

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