Professor Val Curtis, environmental health expert who championed good hygiene and sanitation – obituary

Professor Val Curtis, who has died of cancer aged 62, was a social anthropologist who became director of the environmental health group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); she was an expert on the now highly topical issue of the benefits of hand-washing with soap, and pioneered programmes based around the idea of exploiting the natural human instinct to feel queasy about dirt to change behaviour.

She helped to get universal handwashing on to the list of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and served as adviser to national governments on their sanitation programmes, including a recent effort by the Indian government to end open defecation. More recently, she was a member of SPI-B, the UK government’s behavioural advisory group, and was involved in producing guidelines to help governments develop national communications strategies for behaviour change to combat Covid-19 that are now used by the World Bank and other international bodies.

Val Curtis studied diarrhoeal disease and analysed hygiene behaviour in developing countries. She also conducted an early review of existing research which found that hand-washing with soap could save millions of lives a year.

“Diarrhoeal diseases are the forgotten killers of children,” she told an interviewer in 2005, adding that when deaths from acute respiratory infections – also associated with poor hygiene – are added to deaths from diarrhoea, they added up to more than six million preventable deaths a year worldwide – roughly equivalent to the combined annual toll of Aids, malaria and TB. “Diarrhoeal diseases lack champions,” she observed, “possibly because this is a difficult issue to make attractive, dealing as it does with faeces.”

It was while she was working in Africa that she had the idea of harnessing the marketing expertise of soap companies to teach people about handwashing and persuaded Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to join an initiative called the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, which went on to found Global Handwashing Day, held annually on October 15.

For the first of these events in 2008 she demonstrated that poor hygiene was not confined to developing countries, with a survey which found that the hands of more than a quarter of bus and train commuters in Britain were contaminated with faecal bacteria, with commuters in Newcastle up to three times more likely than those in London to have faecal bacteria on their hands (44 per cent compared to 13 per cent). “We were flabbergasted,” she said.