And a little child shall lead them

January 17, 2012 

PULLMAN — Little kids are amenable to learning new habits — generally much more so than those of us who are set in our ways because this isn’t our first rodeo.

That’s why it’s sometimes more effective to teach children health science information rather than to do outreach aimed directly at their parents.

That’s part of the background to the Global Soap Project. It’s a project that rests on some simple science long ago worked out by biologists and medical researchers. The basic fact is that many types of infections are spread through contaminated water and dirty hands. Microbes can flourish in such spots, particularly sometimes in places like crowded refugee camps or in poor nations.

The Global Soap Project is a program with two basic components. The first is to collect “gently used” bars of soap from hotels – soap that otherwise would be discarded. The pieces of soap are reprocessed in Georgia and shipped to nations like Haiti and Uganda where poverty is rife and health and sanitation facilities are few.

The second prong of the program is to teach children in developing nations to use the soap to wash their hands before eating and after using the toilet. Children accept the lessons — as trusting little kids the world around do — and if they establish hand-washing as a personal habit it likely influences others in their households at home.

Hand-washing is a simple yet key approach to combating a lot of water-borne illness — like cholera. For a variety of different reasons, in some places around the world hand washing is just not a pattern of conduct for many people. In many places it’s a difficult habit to establish in part because a bar of soap can cost a day’s wages.

Simple but basic hand washing habits are one of the best ways to combat diseases that flourish where sanitation is poor — conditions that affect a staggering 2.4 billion people according to the World Health Organization.

As I read about the Global Soap Project the other day, I thought about how much I take for granted in my life. A bar of soap beside the bathroom sink, warm water to wash with, anti-bacterial soap in the shower, and so on. When I travel, I also take for granted the little bars of soap the hotel provides me.

According to a news report from CNN, a hotel maid named Fatoma Dia is one person involved collecting scrap soap. She works at a Hilton hotel where she simply tosses little-used bars of soap into a collection bucket as she cleans rooms. Her hotel in total accounts for several hundred pounds of soap collected each month.

The soap redistribution project has included work in Haiti. Especially after the earthquake of January, 2010, many Haitians have been living without what we’d recognize as adequate sanitation facilities, both at home and in refugee camps. Cholera has often dogged the people of Haiti. A total of more than 400,000 cases have been reported since the disease reared its head in October of 2010. Basic hygiene — like washing hands with soap and water - can make all the difference in terms of limiting transmission of disease in crowded places.

CNN reports one project in Haiti that’s been aimed at changing kids’ habits. A Port-au-Prince school teaches its children to wash their hands with soap and water using a jingle with these words: “Good morning, water! Good morning soap! Goodbye microbes!” Obviously some punchiness has been lost in translation, but the simple yet useful idea gets through to me as I sit here in a nation that takes pure water and soap for granted.

I wish Dia and her co-workers the best in collecting soap that would otherwise be thrown out. Sometimes simple things matter the most of all — like giving little kids (and their parents) in the developing world a chance to avoid water-borne diseases.

* Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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