Scientific article
Open access

How does handwashing behaviour change in response to a cholera outbreak ? A qualitative case study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Published inPloS one, vol. 17, no. 4, e0266849
Publication date2022-04-12
First online date2022-04-12


Handwashing with soap has the potential to curb cholera transmission. This research explores how populations experienced and responded to the 2017 cholera outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and how this affected their handwashing behaviour.


Cholera cases were identified through local cholera treatment centre records. Comparison individuals were recruited from the same neighbourhoods by identifying households with no recent confirmed or suspected cholera cases. Multiple qualitative methods were employed to understand hand hygiene practices and their determinants, including unstructured observations, interviews and focus group discussions. The data collection tools and analysis were informed by the Behaviour Centred Design Framework. Comparisons were made between the experiences and practices of people from case households and participants from comparison households.


Cholera was well understood by the population and viewed as a persistent and common health challenge. Handwashing with soap was generally observed to be rare during the outbreak despite self-reported increases in behaviour. Across case and comparison groups, individuals were unable to prioritise handwashing due to competing food-scarcity and livelihood challenges and there was little in the physical or social environments to cue handwashing or make it a convenient, rewarding or desirable to practice. The ability of people from case households to practice handwashing was further constrained by their exposure to cholera which in addition to illness, caused profound non-health impacts to household income, productivity, social status, and their sense of control.


Even though cholera outbreaks can cause disruptions to many determinants of behaviour, these shifts do not automatically facilitate an increase in preventative behaviours like handwashing with soap. Hygiene programmes targeting outbreaks within complex crises could be strengthened by acknowledging the emic experiences of the disease and adopting sustainable solutions which build upon local disease coping mechanisms.

  • Cholera / epidemiology
  • Cholera / prevention & control
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo / epidemiology
  • Disease Outbreaks / prevention & control
  • Hand Disinfection / methods
  • Humans
  • Soaps
Citation (ISO format)
WHITE, Sian et al. How does handwashing behaviour change in response to a cholera outbreak ? A qualitative case study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In: PloS one, 2022, vol. 17, n° 4, p. e0266849. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266849
Main files (1)
Article (Published version)
ISSN of the journal1932-6203

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