Handwashing and Neonatal Health

Every year on October 15th, we join with millions of people around the world to recognize Global Handwashing Day.


The day is bittersweet for those of us involved in the work of hygiene promotion: sweet because we know how valuable handwashing is to global health, and bitter because so many people are still dying from diseases that could be prevented by adequate handwashing behavior.

All over the world, we handle newborn babies with gentle and loving care, making every attempt to keep them safe. These protective instincts are with good reason: in many countries around the world, the first 28 days of life- the neonatal period- are when a person is most vulnerable to death and disease.

In recent years the effort to improve child survival made great progress. Since 1990, the global mortality rate for children under five years old has declined by nearly 50 percent. This success is something to celebrate, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.Nearly 3 million newborns still die each year, accounting for 44 percent of all deaths in children under five years old.[1]

Tragically, the majority of newborn deaths are preventable. Up to 70 percent of newborn deaths could be avoided by known, low-cost health measures such as early and exclusive breastfeeding, and hygienic umbilical cord and skin care.[2] One simple solution has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of newborn lives every year: handwashing with soap.

We know that handwashing is an incredibly effective way to keep a community healthy. Without adequate handwashing practices, people put themselves and others around them at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. And when disease is spreading through a community, newborns are particularly vulnerable. However, handwashing by those who come in contact with the newborn can help keep the newborn safe. A study in Nepal found that if mothers wash their hands with soap, newborn death is reduced by 44 percent![3] For those living in developed countries, failing to wash your hands before holding a baby will rarely lead to illness. But for those living in places where diarrhea and other diseases are a regular occurrence, lack of handwashing can result in tragedy that no mother or father should endure.

Hygiene promotion, including specific handwashing education, is an essential component of Lifewater’s work around the world. Together with our partners, Lifewater teaches key people such as community health workers, schoolteachers, and government workers how to promote handwashing in the communities where they live and work. This education includes lessons on how germs and diseases are spread, the most critical times to wash your hands, and how to construct a simple handwashing device using locally-available materials. Lifewater and our partners are working hard to ensure that mothers, fathers, students, and others understand the importance of handwashing for their health and the health of all members of their community, including the newborn babies.

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013 (New York: UNICEF 2013), 7, 20.

[2] Darmstadt G, Bhutta Z, et al, “Evidence-based, cost-effective interventions: how many newborn babies can we save?” The Lancet 365 (2005): 977-988.

[3] Rhee V, Mullany L, et al, “Maternal and Birth Attendant Hand Washing and Neonatal Mortality in Southern Nepal,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine162 (2008): 605.

Choose a Village. Change a Life.