“Lions do not wash hands,” said Inam to one of his friends who wanted to wash his hands as a group of young men settled down to have their lunch at a roadside restaurant in Islamabad.
“Come on, you have not been cleaning drains,” said another one of them, finally persuading him to settle at the table. Unaware of the fact that one can contract scores of germs and harmful infections even by holdi4ng a currency note, the group simply clapped and wiped their hands and started eating.
This behaviour prevails across the country not only among young macho men or people belonging to the less-educated class but also the urban men, women and children because not washing hands unless they look dirty or smell foul has become a habit.
Incidentally, more people wash hands thoroughly using soap after meals.
It may be possible because nobody would want to have the flavours of chillies and spices present in the food transmitted to the eyes or nose as it is a general trend to clean these parts with dry hands.
However, these traits are not limited to millions of Pakistanis only but have become a worldwide phenomenon and that is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set October 15 as the ‘Global Hand-washing Day’.
The need to wash hands is not only limited to eating time, because this is the most innocent way to contract various contaminations, including the common eye infections during summer which is mostly due to rubbing of the eyes with hands.
The outcome of executing routine matters without regularly washing hands is more than just observing formal etiquettes.
“Many things that we touch in routine are direct contagions that could be the handle of a gate as even the sweepers might be touching it; therefore, one is indirectly touching the garbage he (sweeper) has laid hands on,” said Dr Suleman Otho, a public health expert based in Karachi.
But the worst victims of this careless attitude of not washing hands, especially by mothers, are infants and children as they are more prone to be infected with diarrhoea and some respiratory infections.
According to the WHO, pneumonia is the number-one cause of child mortality under the age of five years, taking the lives of an estimated 1.8 million children per year.
Diarrhoea and pneumonia together account for almost 3.5 million child deaths annually worldwide. Mothers who simply wash hands with soap can prevent the transmission of the bacteria, viruses and protozoa that cause diarrhoea.
With the view to focus on controlling spread of infections among the infants, the theme of Global Hand-washing Day this year is ‘Help more children reach their fifth birthday’ as simply washing hands with soap and water can help reduce the chances of transmitting many serous infections.
“The situation is more serious for Pakistan as polio is among the diseases related to fecal-oral transmission,” Dr Otho said, adding Pakistan is one of the three countries where polio has yet to be eradicated - the other being Nigeria and Afghanistan.
The habit of washing hands regularly is beneficial for adults too, as they also get in contact with many sources of infections that cause different diseases including typhoid, cholera and all other common endemic gastro-enteric and respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia.
“The issue has been taken up even by advanced countries as a huge amount is spent on the treatment of patients suffering from such diseases that can be prevented easily,” said Abdul Hafeez, the advocacy manager of Water Aid Pakistan. “Those resources can be diverted for treatment of patients suffering from other serious health problems.”
The first-ever global hand-washing day was observed on October 15, 2008, as the UN General Assembly designated 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation.
The WHO has said encouraging hand-washing habits among children will eventually lead to a life-long trend among them reducing the spread of many diseases and preventing more deaths and illness than any medical intervention can do.