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TED@Unilever

Myriam Sidibe: The simple power of hand-washing

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Myriam Sidibe is a warrior in the fight against childhood disease. Her weapon of choice? A bar of soap. For cost-effective prevention against sickness, it’s hard to beat soapy hand-washing, which cuts down risk of pneumonia, diarrhea, cholera and worse. Sidibe, a public-health expert, makes a smart case for public-private partnerships to promote clean hands — and local, sustainable entrepreneurship.

- Public-health expert
Dr. Myriam Sidibe promotes hand-washing with soap, setting up partnerships with governments, companies and communities to promote this simple, cheap, powerful disease-fighting tactic. Full bio

So imagine that a plane is about to crash
00:12
with 250 children and babies,
00:18
and if you knew how to stop that, would you?
00:21
Now imagine
00:24
that 60 planes full of babies under five
00:26
crash every single day.
00:30
That's the number of kids
00:33
that never make it to their fifth birthday.
00:35
6.6 million children
00:37
never make it to their fifth birthday.
00:40
Most of these deaths are preventable,
00:44
and that doesn't just make me sad,
00:46
it makes me angry,
00:48
and it makes me determined.
00:50
Diarrhea and pneumonia
00:52
are among the top two killers
00:54
of children under five,
00:56
and what we can do to prevent these diseases
00:58
isn't some smart,
01:01
new technological innovations.
01:03
It's one of the world's oldest inventions:
01:06
a bar of soap.
01:11
Washing hands with soap,
01:14
a habit we all take for granted,
01:16
can reduce diarrhea by half,
01:18
can reduce respiratory infections by one third.
01:20
Handwashing with soap
01:24
can have an impact
01:26
on reducing flu, trachoma, SARS,
01:27
and most recently in the case of cholera
01:32
and Ebola outbreak,
01:35
one of the key interventions
01:37
is handwashing with soap.
01:39
Handwashing with soap keeps kids in school.
01:42
It stops babies from dying.
01:45
Handwashing with soap
01:48
is one of the most cost-effective
01:50
ways of saving children's lives.
01:53
It can save over 600,000 children every year.
01:55
That's the equivalent of stopping
01:59
10 jumbo jets
02:02
full of babies and children
02:04
from crashing every single day.
02:06
I think you'll agree with me that that's a pretty
02:08
useful public health intervention.
02:11
So now just take a minute.
02:14
I think you need to get to
know the person next to you.
02:17
Why don't you just shake their hands.
02:19
Please shake their hands.
02:21
All right, get to know each other.
02:23
They look really pretty.
02:24
All right.
02:26
So what if I told you
02:28
that the person whose hands you just shook
02:30
actually didn't wash their hands
02:33
when they were coming out of the toilet?
(Laughter)
02:34
They don't look so pretty anymore, right?
02:37
Pretty yucky, you would agree with me.
02:40
Well, statistics are actually showing
02:44
that four people out of five
02:45
don't wash their hands when
they come out of the toilet,
02:48
globally.
02:50
And the same way,
02:52
we don't do it when we've got fancy toilets,
02:54
running water, and soap available,
02:57
it's the same thing in the countries
02:59
where child mortality is really high.
03:01
What is it? Is there no soap?
03:05
Actually, soap is available.
03:07
In 90 percent of households in India,
03:09
94 percent of households in Kenya,
03:13
you will find soap.
03:16
Even in countries where soap is the lowest,
03:17
like Ethiopia, we are at 50 percent.
03:21
So why is it?
03:24
Why aren't people washing their hands?
03:26
Why is it that Mayank,
03:29
this young boy that I met in India,
03:31
isn't washing his hands?
03:33
Well, in Mayank's family,
03:35
soap is used for bathing,
03:38
soap is used for laundry,
03:40
soap is used for washing dishes.
03:42
His parents think sometimes
03:45
it's a precious commodity,
03:47
so they'll keep it in a cupboard.
03:48
They'll keep it away from him so he doesn't waste it.
03:51
On average, in Mayank's family,
03:53
they will use soap for washing hands
03:56
once a day
03:58
at the very best, and sometimes
03:59
even once a week for washing hands with soap.
04:02
What's the result of that?
04:05
Children pick up disease
04:07
in the place that's supposed to love them
04:09
and protect them the most, in their homes.
04:11
Think about where you learned to wash your hands.
04:15
Did you learn to wash your hands at home?
04:18
Did you learn to wash your hands in school?
04:21
I think behavioral scientists will tell you
04:24
that it's very difficult to change the habits
04:26
that you have had early in life.
04:29
However, we all copy what everyone else does,
04:34
and local cultural norms are something
04:36
that shape how we change our behavior,
04:39
and this is where the private sector comes in.
04:42
Every second in Asia and Africa,
04:45
111 mothers
04:49
will buy this bar to protect their family.
04:52
Many women in India will tell you
04:56
they learned all about hygiene, diseases,
04:58
from this bar of soap from Lifebuoy brand.
05:00
Iconic brands like this one
05:04
have a responsibility to do good
05:05
in the places where they sell their products.
05:07
It's that belief, plus the scale of Unilever,
05:10
that allows us to keep talking about
05:13
handwashing with soap and
hygiene to these mothers.
05:15
Big businesses and brands can change
05:19
and shift those social norms
05:23
and make a difference for those habits
05:25
that are so stubborn.
05:27
Think about it:
05:29
Marketeers spend all their time
05:30
making us switch from one brand to the other.
05:34
And actually, they know how to transform
05:38
science and facts into compelling messages.
05:41
Just for a minute, imagine
05:44
when they put all their forces behind
05:46
a message as powerful as handwashing with soap.
05:49
The profit motive is transforming health outcomes
05:51
in this world.
05:54
But it's been happening for centuries:
05:56
the Lifebuoy brand was launched in 1894
05:58
in Victorian England
06:02
to actually combat cholera.
06:03
Last week, I was in Ghana
06:06
with the minister of health,
06:08
because if you don't know,
06:10
there's a cholera outbreak in Ghana at the moment.
06:11
A hundred and eighteen years later,
06:13
the solution is exactly the same:
06:16
It's about ensuring that they have access
06:17
to this bar of soap,
06:20
and that they're using it,
06:21
because that's the number one way
06:23
to actually stop cholera from spreading.
06:25
I think this drive for profit
06:28
is extremely powerful,
06:31
sometimes more powerful than
06:33
the most committed charity or government.
06:34
Government is doing what they can,
06:37
especially in terms of the pandemics
06:39
and epidemics such as cholera,
06:43
or Ebola at the moment,
06:45
but with competing priorities.
06:47
The budget is not always there.
06:49
And when you think about this,
06:52
you think about what is required
06:53
to make handwashing a daily habit,
06:56
it requires sustained funding
06:58
to refine this behavior.
07:02
In short, those that fight for public health
07:05
are actually dependent upon the soap companies
07:09
to keep promoting handwashing with soap.
07:12
We have friends like USAID,
07:15
the Global Public-Private Partnership
for Handwashing with Soap,
07:18
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,
07:22
Plan, WaterAid,
07:24
that all believe
07:25
for a win-win-win partnership.
07:27
Win for the public sector,
07:30
because we help them reach their targets.
07:32
Win for the private sector,
07:36
because we build new generations
07:38
of future handwashers.
07:39
And most importantly,
07:41
win for the most vulnerable.
07:43
On October 15,
07:46
we will celebrate Global Handwashing Day.
07:48
Schools, communities,
07:50
our friends in the public sector
07:52
and our friends in the private sector —
07:54
yes, on that day even our competitors,
07:57
we all join hands to celebrate
07:59
the world's most important
08:01
public health intervention.
08:03
What's required,
08:05
and again where the private sector
can make a huge difference,
08:06
is coming up with this big, creative thinking
08:09
that drives advocacy.
08:13
If you take our Help a Child Reach 5 campaign,
08:15
we've created great films
08:17
that bring the message of handwashing with soap
08:20
to the everyday person
08:23
in a way that can relate to them.
08:24
We've had over 30 million views.
08:27
Most of these discussions are still happening online.
08:29
I urge you to take five minutes
08:31
and look at those films.
08:33
I come from Mali,
08:37
one of the world's poorest countries.
08:38
I grew up in a family where every dinner conversation
08:41
was around social justice.
08:43
I trained in Europe's premier school of public health.
08:45
I think I'm probably one of the only women
08:49
in my country with this high degree in health,
08:51
and the only one
08:54
with a doctorate in handwashing with soap.
08:56
(Laughter)
08:59
(Applause)
09:01
Nine years ago, I decided,
09:08
with a successful public health career in the making,
09:10
that I could make the biggest impact coming,
09:13
selling and promoting the world's best invention
09:16
in public health: soap.
09:19
We run today the world's largest
09:22
handwashing program
09:24
by any public health standards.
09:25
We've reached over 183 million people
09:28
in 16 countries.
09:31
My team and I have the ambition
09:35
to reach one billion by 2020.
09:37
Over the last four years,
09:40
business has grown double digits,
09:42
whilst child mortality has reduced
09:45
in all the places where soap use has increased.
09:47
It may be uncomfortable for some to hear —
09:52
business growth and lives saved
09:54
somehow equated in the same sentence —
09:56
but it is that business growth
10:00
that allows us to keep doing more.
10:02
Without it, and without talking about it,
10:04
we cannot achieve the change that we need.
10:07
Last week, my team and I
10:11
spent time visiting mothers
10:13
that have all experienced the same thing:
10:16
the death of a newborn.
10:19
I'm a mom. I can't imagine anything more powerful
10:21
and more painful.
10:24
This one is from Myanmar.
10:27
She had the most beautiful smile,
10:30
the smile, I think, that life gives you
10:32
when you've had a second chance.
10:34
Her son, Myo, is her second one.
10:36
She had a daughter
10:40
who passed away at three weeks,
10:41
and we know that the majority
10:44
of children that actually die
10:46
die in the first month of their life,
10:48
and we know that if we give a bar of soap
10:49
to every skilled birth attendant,
10:52
and that if soap is used
before touching the babies,
10:55
we can reduce and make a change
10:57
in terms of those numbers.
10:58
And that's what inspires me,
11:00
inspires me to continue in this mission,
11:02
to know that I can equip her
11:04
with what's needed
11:07
so that she can do
11:09
the most beautiful job in the world:
11:10
nurturing her newborn.
11:13
And next time you think of a gift
11:15
for a new mom and her family,
11:17
don't look far: buy her soap.
11:19
It's the most beautiful invention in public health.
11:22
I hope you will join us
11:25
and make handwashing part of your daily lives
11:27
and our daily lives
11:30
and help more children like Myo
11:32
reach their fifth birthday.
11:34
Thank you.
11:35
(Applause)
11:38

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About the speaker:

Myriam Sidibe - Public-health expert
Dr. Myriam Sidibe promotes hand-washing with soap, setting up partnerships with governments, companies and communities to promote this simple, cheap, powerful disease-fighting tactic.

Why you should listen

Myriam Sidibe is one of the only people in the world with a doctorate in public health focused on handwashing with soap. As the Global Social Mission Director for Lifebuoy soap, she has spent 14 years working with thousands of children understanding the most effective ways to get them to wash their hands with soap at key occasions like before eating or after using the bathroom.

Sidibe leads Social Mission activity in 55 countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America with the aim of changing handwashing behaviours of one billion people by 2020 – that’s the biggest hygiene behaviour change program in the world.

Sidibe is one of the driving forces behind the creation of Global Handwashing Day, which recognises the need to raise awareness of handwashing with soap as a simple but lifesaving habit that can prevent disease. She represents Unilever and often partners with organisations such as Millennium Villages, the World Bank, PSI, WSUP, MCHIP and USAID to educate people about the importance of handwashing with soap, and run programmes that will help form healthy handwashing habits for life.

More profile about the speaker
Myriam Sidibe | Speaker | TED.com