Myriam Sidibe: Would Fewer Children Die of Disease If They Just Washed Their Hands? Washing your hands with soap stops the spread of many lethal diseases. Yet most people don't wash their hands, even after using the bathroom. Dr. Myriam Sidibe wants to reverse this disturbing trend.
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Myriam Sidibe: Would Fewer Children Die of Disease If They Just Washed Their Hands?

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Myriam Sidibe: Would Fewer Children Die of Disease If They Just Washed Their Hands?

Myriam Sidibe: Would Fewer Children Die of Disease If They Just Washed Their Hands?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about how we can solve some of our most complex problems in simple ways. So one huge problem that you probably hear a lot about is that every single year, millions of children all around the world die from common diseases.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MYRIAM SIDIBE: I think some of the top main killers are diarrhea and pneumonia. So diarrhea disease kills more than half a million children globally every year, more than HIV, AIDS malaria and measles combined.

RAZ: This is public health advocate Myriam Sidibe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIDIBE: The maximum number of these children are dying because of preventable disease that we can do something about.

RAZ: And for the last 20 years, Myriam's been working to fix this problem. And her solution, it doesn't require a new vaccine or a massive health initiative or a huge grant from the Gates Foundation. Myriam described her simple solution from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIDIBE: What we can do to prevent this disease is one of the world's oldest invention - bar of soap. Washing hands with soap - a habit we all take for granted - can reduce diarrhea by half, can reduce respiratory infections by one-third. Hand washing with soap can have an impact on reducing flu, trachoma, SARS, and most recently, in the case of cholera and Ebola outbreak.

Hand washing with soap keeps kids in school. It stops babies from dying. Hand washing with soap is one of the most cost-effective way of saving children's life. It can save over 600,000 children every year. I think you'll agree with me that that's a pretty useful public health intervention.

Statistics are actually showing that 4 people out of 5 don't wash their hands when they come out of the toilets. And the same way we don't do it when we've got fancy toilets, running water and soap available, it's the same thing in the countries where child mortality is really high.

RAZ: I mean, that's pretty surprising to me that so few people wash their hands after using the bathroom because it seems like that idea is programmed into our brains from a very young age.

SIDIBE: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. I would say, one, the environment is not always adequate. So when you take a lot of the rural areas or areas where, you know, water supply is not always flowing out of your tap, it might be very difficult for you to make it a habit so routinely because having water and soap at the same place is not often there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIDIBE: Why is it that Mayank, this young boy that I met in India, isn't washing his hands? Well, in Mayank's family, soap is used for bathing. Soap is used for laundry. Soap is used for washing dishes. His parents think sometimes it's a precious commodity. So they'll keep it in a cupboard. They'll keep it away from him, so he doesn't waste it.

On average, in Mayank's family, they will use soap for washing hands once a day at the very best and, sometimes, even once a week for washing hands with soap. What's the result of that? Children pick up disease in the places that are supposed to love them and protect them the most, in their homes.

So that's one reality. Two, even though people have access to soap and even when they have access to water, transforming it into a habit regularly is usually not found.

RAZ: OK. So how do we get people to wash their hands more often?

SIDIBE: It needs to be transformed into social norms so that everybody, you know, is basically monitoring everybody else and checking that everybody is washing their hands. So it's about washing your hands before you eat, washing your hands after the toilet, making sure that those are embedded into routines in the household.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIDIBE: Nine years ago, I decided, with a successful public health career in the making, that I could make the biggest impact coming, selling and promoting the world's best invention in public health - soap. We run, today, the world's largest hand-washing program by any public health standards. Over the last four years, child mortality has reduced in all the places where soap use has increased.

Last week, my team and I spent time visiting mothers that have all experienced the same thing - the death of a newborn. I'm a mom. I can't imagine anything more powerful and more painful. And we know that the majority of children that actually die, die in the first month of their life. And we know that if we give a bar of soap to every skilled birth attendants and that soap is used before touching the babies, we can reduce and make a change in terms of those numbers.

And that's what inspires me, inspires me to continue in this mission. And next time you think of a gift for a new mom and her family, don't look far. Buy her a soap. It's the most beautiful invention in public health.

RAZ: I mean, it's amazing because we think about complicated solutions to big health challenges, right? But it does make sense, in a way, when you say that soap is the world's best invention in public health because it's cheap. It doesn't require refrigeration. It's - it doesn't require careful transport. It can be made locally. It's available everywhere. And it's soap.

SIDIBE: Yes, that's right. I mean, there's nothing fundamentally new about that. (Laughter). But what is absolutely needed is that, you know, to be thinking about what these simple solutions can have in terms of an impact into bigger public health issues. And, you know, it's not just soap. I mean, it's similarly the same with toothpaste and school absenteeism and what do you do in terms of that being, you know, obviously the No. 1 reasons for children missing out on schools? And I think ultimately that is, you know, the reasons why prevention becomes so important in some of the public health problems of today.

RAZ: I'm going to go wash my hands after this, Myriam.

SIDIBE: (Laughter). You should, and you should make sure that all the people around you are washing their hands because otherwise you'll shake somebody else's hands who does not wash their hands, and it's back to the same thing.

RAZ: I know. The whole TED Radio Hour team is going to go wash their hands right now. OK, guys?

SIDIBE: (Laughter). They should.

RAZ: That's Myriam Sidibe. She's the social mission director for Unilever of Africa, and we reached her at her home in Nairobi. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, simple solutions to some pretty complex problems.

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