Global Handwashing Day

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By | From the Collections

It is Global Hand Washing Day today and we’ve chosen to mark the date by highlighting material from a recent library acquisition of African health posters, a number of which remind us all of the importance of hand washing and basic sanitation.

For instance, the simple act of washing hands with soap (752738i) and segregation of toilet facilities (756161i) can prevent common ailments in children like diarrhoea associated with cholera (755196i), eye infections (755601i) and since 2000, avian flu (755530i).

Personal hygiene was key to the 2000 Sara Campaign, an initiative aimed at adolescent girls developed in 10 countries of Eastern and Southern Africa with UNICEF assistance. Originally a radio series, the programme branched out into animated films, comic books, storybooks, audiocassettes, guides and posters. (Source:

Hand washing with soap is said to be the most effective and cheapest way to prevent diarrhoea (associated with cholera and typhoid fever) and acute respiratory infections (like TB and pneumonia).

Such infections take the lives of millions of children in developing countries each year, according to the Global Public-Private Partnership for Hand Washing who initiated Global Handwashing Day (GHD) in 2008. Posters are an essential way of promoting the routine which, it appears, is seldom practiced in some areas yet could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention. (Source:

Apart from basic hygiene issues, the majority of posters from this collection highlight family planning issues (birth control, family size, contraception etc) but, not surprisingly, many other problems are revealed: malaria (755536i), polio (755539i ), TB (752340i), typhoid (755617i) avian flu (752086i), trachoma and blindness (752498i ), diabetes (755362i) and hypoglyemia (755464i).

Less commonly depicted are issues concerning female circumcision (755185i and 755386i ), genital mutilation (752291i), and in 2001, the ‘flying toilet’ problem in Kibera slums (755701i, and 755711i).

Details of our collection of African health posters can be seen in the Wellcome Library catalogue.


A girl washing her hands in a bowl above a tap in a washing cubicle; health education in Ethiopia. Colour lithograph by Health Education Centre (?), ca. 2000, Wellcome Library ref. 752738i

School children visiting a segregated corrugated toilet and washing their hands: hygiene in Kenya. Colour lithograph by Ministry of Health, Kenya, ca. 2000, Wellcome Library ref. 756161i

Women preparing a chicken and washing their hands: preventing avian flu in Kenya. Colour lithograph by Ministry of Health, ca. 2006, Wellcome Library ref. 755530i

A girl holds a chicken on a plate as a man washes his hands: protecting against avian flu in Kenya. Colour lithograph by UNICEF and Maskew Miller Longman, ca. 2000, Wellcome Library ref. 755918i

Campaign against female genital mutilation in Djibouti. Colour lithograph by A. Rachid and A. Djama for Ministère de la Santé MGF project, ca. 2010, Wellcome Library ref. 752291i

Three toilets in the form of ducks in flight: appeal to improve sanitation in the slums of Kibera. Colour lithograph by AMREF, 2001, Wellcome Library ref. 755701i

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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