By: Michelle Brooks, Head of Policy and Advocacy US at Uniting to Combat NTDs

We’ve all seen children playing in the mud, squealing with delight… and, then popping those small, dirty fingers right into their mouths. It is a habit that comes early and, a habit that parents quickly try to break.

Children rarely understand the consequences of placing their unwashed hands into their months. Yet, for children living in countries that are endemic for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), the results of placing unwashed hands into their mouths can become a high-risk behavior.

The global impact of NTDs is remarkable; they cause blindness, disability, malnutrition and anemia, stunted growth, social stigma, and chronic pain. Beyond their negative impact on health, NTDs contribute to an ongoing cycle of poverty and stigma that leaves people unable to work, go to school, or participate in family and community life. More than one billion people are impacted globally by NTDs, including 600 million children.

Improving the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions in local schools can help prevent NTD infections among school-age children. Schools are often used as a platform for the treatment of NTDs in school-age children, such as soil-transmitted helminthiasis (STH) and schistosomiasis. For instance, handwashing with soap at critical times, such as after defecation and before eating, can reduce the risk of infection for all three STH species (hookworm, round worm and whipworm) by more than 30 percent.

Two children wash their hands.

Photo: © GSK / Marcus Perkins

The integration of school-based treatment programs, alongside school WASH programs is a critical component of a comprehensive approach to NTD control at the school level.

Although the WASH and NTD sectors often work in the same communities, they have historically worked in separate tracks rather than coordinating their efforts. This lack of coordination is due in part to the different health outcomes on which each sector focuses. The WASH sector focuses on improved health, such as reduced diarrheal disease, and also on additional outcomes like improved livelihoods and overall well-being. The NTD sector, however, focuses mainly on providing treatment for diseases, with less emphasis on prevention.

This Global Handwashing Day, we urge the NTD and WASH sectors to find greater opportunities to collaborate. Such collaboration should ensure that communities have adequate and equitable access to water and sanitation, as well as the tools to practice good hygiene—including handwashing. All of these tools serve as the basis for prevention of NTDs and other disabling diseases. Our future and the small hands of those belonging to communities impacted by NTDs deserve it.