12 Mar
  • By Alison Martha Fagan

Hygiene in 1st vs 3rd world countries

According to the Oxford English Dictionary hygiene can be described as “conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness” (1). Hygiene in itself is how we maintain our health through cleaning ourselves. However there are stark differences in how both 3rd world developing countries and the western world practice hygiene with very different results. In developing countries there still remains a lack of access to clean water and good sanitation. Good sanitation is essential for survival. But according to reports, there are approximately “2.4 billion who do not use improved sanitation and 663 million who do not have access to improved water resources” (2). This lack of good hygiene has ramifications for the health of both children and adults alike. More importantly lack of access to soap and lack of hand washing after toilet issues also has consequences health wise.

Acute diarrhoea amongst people in third world countries is one significant consequence. Diarrhoea could be said to derive from the fact that in developing countries “1.1 billion” still excrete faeces in the open and hand washing is only practiced on average after “17 per cent of toilet uses” (3). Diarrhoea is acutely caused by poor hygiene and poor sanitation practices. (4). Diarrhoea is a leading cause of death amongst children and also causes a higher risk of death and long term health effects.


On the other hand hygiene in the western developed world poses very different risks.  Our obsession with hygiene, over use of cleaning products and preoccupation with being ‘clean’ has differing consequences. One argument is how the result of being too hygienic has on our immune system. In fact immunologists have explained how exactly limited “exposure to bacteria and parasitic worms is damaging the immune system’s ability to regulate itself” (5). This results in a malfunction which not only produces the systems of allergies but other immune –related diseases for example diabetes.  By constantly washing and cleaning our immune system becomes compromised and not able to build up a strong defence.

Furthermore the strong diversity between hygiene practices in the developing and developed world and there very different consequences could be accurately described in one study. In fact one study investigates the presence of bacteria in the gut. Gut bacteria can be said to fight diseases but there are significant differences in its presence in differing populations. Researchers compared the presence of gut-microbiota micro-organisms of people living in “two traditional Papa New Guinea communities with people from an urban centre in the US state of Nebraska” (6). This study discovered there was a wider range of bacteria amongst the PNG groups with the differences resulting from lifestyle factors. This difference was found due to “less sanitation” in low income countries with the resounding result being the relationship presence of gut microbiota and western diseases.


The differences between hygiene practices in the developing and developed world are stark with very different results. However there is some change happening in these practices. In particular UNICEF’S ‘WASH’ programme provides over 14 million people “with clean water” and over 11 million with “basic toilets” (7). As far as the developed world goes research has found there is no need to redirect suddenly from cautious cleaning and washing practices. But there is room for improvement here also. In particular there should be plans to reintroduce “bacterial lineages which have been eradicated in western societies” (8). Good hygiene and cleaning practices are important for all of us but there should be a balance between having too good hygiene and having too little so we have the necessary immune system to fight diseases. The developing and developed world should have this balance.


  1. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/hygiene accessed on 27/02/2018.
  2. https://www.unicef.org/wash/ accessed on 27/02/2018
  3. http://www.who.int/elena/titles/bbc/wsh_diarrhoea/en/ accessed on 27/02/2018
  4. http://www.who.int/elena/titles/bbc/wsh_diarrhoea/en/ accessed on 27/02/2018
  5. http://www.sciencefocus.com/feature/health/could-hygiene-obsession-cause-allergies accessed on 27/02/2018
  6. https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/western-hygiene-could-rob-us-of-useful-gut-bacteria-study-20150417-1mn9h1.html accessed on 27/02/2018
  7. https://www.unicef.org/wash/ accessed on 28/02/2018
  8. https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/western-hygiene-could-rob-us-of-useful-gut-bacteria-study-20150417-1mn9h1.html accessed on 28/02/2018

Alison Fagan – a graduate of Trinity College Dublin who enjoys writing both fiction and non-fiction and am very concerned with social and world affairs