Meet Dr. Myriam Sidibe, the Handwashing Champion

September 27, 2017

Myriam Sidibe is one of two people in the world with a doctorate in public health, focused on hand washing, which she attained from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Myriam has used her expertise to work with various NGOs and governments, UN organizations in both relief and development settings.

aphrc.orgMyriam has also been the pioneer and leader of Unilever’s social mission work in 55 countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, since 2006. She is well known for her work promoting hand washing with soap, as a simple, cheap, powerful disease-fighting tactic proven to reduce child mortality rates in the world. As an advocacy approach, she co-founded the Global Handwashing Day in 2008 that is celebrated annually on October 15th. She has spent years working with thousands of children understanding the most effective ways to get them to wash their hands with soap at key moments occasions like before eating or after using the bathroom. She has led the world’s largest movement of handwashing with soap which reached 337 million people in 28 countries, with the ambition of reaching one billion by 2020.

I had the pleasure of talking to her during the launch of the Lancet Commission’s report: ‘The path to longer and healthier lives for all Africans by 2030’ on September 14, at the African Population and Health Research Center. Here is a summary of the interview.

From your experience, how has research evidence-informed implementation of public health programs such as the (Lifebuoy Help a Child Reach 5 program) in Africa?
I appreciate the contribution research makes in informing interventions. Unilever is using research evidence on child mortality rates as a basis to drive change in handwashing practices at the community, nationally, regionally and globally.

My own work is defined and informed by research. I did my Ph.D. research in Dakar, Senegal where I followed and watched hygiene practices of over 4,000 children. I monitored if they washed their hands, at what time and how often. It was an interesting process.

You would think that handwashing is defined by access to soap and clean water. Actually, it is not. I watched adults and children who had access to both, wash hands fewer times than those who did not. For example, we talked to some business people who said mythically that it was bad to wash hands too many times as they would lose money. From this experience, I learned that behavior change is a process. It is about how people have been cultured.

Myriam Sidibe (left) during a panel session at the Lancet report launch with fellow commissioners Bright Simons (center) and Peter Piot (right). 

You are passionate about sustaining the health of children. How do you think we can address the issue of high child mortality rates in Africa?

Statistics indicate that more than 5.9 million children under the age of five died in 2015 from preventable causes including diarrhea. The fact that these deaths were preventable should be our focus. We should interrogate to know what prevention mechanisms we can invest in to ensure children to do not get sick, to begin with. In our case, we believe that handwashing is one of the basic measures of prevention. But from a wider perspective, the sustainable solution is to guarantee universal health coverage.

You mentioned that innovation should be at the core of health interventions. How can the private sector support innovation?
For starters, the private sector needs to look at innovation differently. Innovation is not necessarily a product. My definition of innovation is the ability to make people look at something differently. If a particular strategy makes people look at how they approach their everyday life differently, then for me, this is innovation. We have many health challenges as a continent, but we also have local solutions to them. If we changed our way of thinking, to accommodate the local solutions, then we would pave the way for innovation.

What are some of the sustainable ways that private institutions can engage with policy-makers to inform policy action in the health sector?
Regardless of our areas of interest or work, we all want people to be healthy. In one way or another, we can all contribute.

We have an opportunity to form partnerships that can contribute to addressing health challenges through various platforms such as corporate social responsibility, support to campaigns, identifying our reach and how we can use that to have an impact. For example, we are the largest manufacturers of soap in the world. It makes sense for us to have an interest in how people approach hygiene issues and how we can contribute to either reinforcing positive notions or inculcating a different culture of good practices where there are none.