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Goats Who Eat Soap Are The Enemy Of Global Handwashing Day

Drink as much water as you want, goats — just don't eat the soap!
Anna Ridout
Drink as much water as you want, goats — just don't eat the soap!

The goat ate my soap!

That's what kids might tell their mom when she asks them to wash up before a meal. And they're not kidding. There's even a website from a sanitation group in Malawi with the title: "How to prevent goats from eating soap."

No soap is a big problem. The chemicals in soap help break down oils on your hand that can harbor microbes. According to studies in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Review and Tropical Medicine and International Health, hand-washing with soap could prevent about 1 out of every 3 episodes of diarrheal illness and nearly 1 out of 6 episodes of respiratory infections like pneumonia.

Goats are only one of the reasons that the percentage of people who wash up in the developing world is as low as 19 percent in some countries. In honor of Global Handwashing Day, which is Thursday, here's a look at things that stand in the way of washing — and possible solutions.

Problem: Goats.

Strategy: Cut a plastic water bottle in half. Poke a hole in the soap bar and pass a string through the soap and then through the narrow neck of the half bottle. Use the string to pull the soap within the bottle when not in use (to keep it out of a goat's reach). Then lower the soap when it's time to lather up.

Problem: It's a man's world. Men often decide what goes on the family shopping list, and they're apparently not big fans of hand soap.

Strategy: Education and commercial marketing campaigns target mothers and often identify cheaper sources of soap, such as locally made products, says Dr.Anna Bowen, a medical epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Waterborne Disease division, who frequently travels in the developing world. Other solutions include mixing laundry soap with water for affordable hand-washing and using ash, which is effective, together with water, at getting rid of germs.

Some women in the developing world harden their soap in the sun so it'll last longer.

Some groups donate individual bar soaps from hotel guests who didn't need all the soap in their room and from the hotels, which hand over unused bars as well as partially used bars that are cleaned and molded into new bars.

Problem: The smell. Of the soap. A nice scent is a key reason many women wash their hands in the first place, according to U.N. surveys published in a Handwashing Handbook. Cheap soaps may not have an appealing fragrance.

Strategy: Many commercial firms, like Colgate-Palmolive, are creating hand soaps that are affordable in the developing world and still smell nice. In Ghana, for example, mild lemon-lime tops the favorites list.

Problem: Without running water, which is a rarity in many regions, hand-washing water is often stored in jugs and can easily become contaminated if people dip dirty hands into the water supply or use a ladle that might be dirty to take the water out.

Strategy: This is a job for ... Tippy Tap. Basically an arts and crafts project, Tippy Tap uses a plastic container attached to a lever that lets a few drops of water flow so hands can be cleaned without contaminating the water. Tippy Tap sometimes gets some bad press because the container for the water is often a soda bottle, and health workers are anti-soda. Alternatives include oil and laundry soap containers.

Problem: Getting kids to wash — and stick with it. It takes about 20 seconds, according to the CDC, to effectively scrub off microbes.

Strategy: Sing! In the U.S., children are taught to sing or hum the "Happy Birthday" song twice to make sure they wash long enough to get rid of germs. Hand-washing jingles are becoming popular in the developing world, including versions from Singapore and Nigeria. And in other countries, trained community workers share songs to teach kids the importance of washing their hands. In Uganda, for example, there is a song and dance about how to prevent diarrhea.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Fran Kritz

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