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Simple handwashing crucial to halting diarrhoeal and water-borne diseases, UN stresses

Children wash hands at their school in Bhatari, India.
UNICEF/INDA2012-00248/Prashanth Vishwanathan
Children wash hands at their school in Bhatari, India.

Simple handwashing crucial to halting diarrhoeal and water-borne diseases, UN stresses

Encouraging good handwashing habits among children can act as a ‘do-it-yourself’ vaccine against diarrhoeal disease, preventing more deaths and illness than any other medical intervention, the United Nations said today, urging governments to give it the priority it deserves.

“Halting the spread of diarrhoeal disease is not complicated, or costly, but it is critically important that hand-washing with soap becomes routine for everyone,” said the UN Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) senior advisor on sanitation and hygiene, Therese Dooley, on the occasion of Global Handwashing Day, which is observed annually on 15 October.

“You don’t need to invent some Nobel Prize winning formula to save millions of children. The solution already exists: soap and water,” she added.

Child mortality figures released by UNICEF last month show that some 2,000 children under five years of age die each day from diarrhoeal diseases. A vast majority of them contract these diseases due to a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene.

In a news release, the children’s agency said it has new data showing how the practice of handwashing varies from country to country and is influenced by location, culture and wealth.

In Swaziland, for example, half of urban families in 2010 were likely to practice handwashing, compared to less than a third of families in rural areas. In Rwanda, only two per cent of the population practice handwashing, with almost no difference between urban and rural areas.

This disparity highlights the need for governments to implement policies promoting this practice among all of their population, said the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.

“Governments do not prioritize hygiene in their policy and budgeting, in the school curriculum, in promotion activities,” Ms. de Albuquerque noted in her message marking the Day.

“All too often, when we consider water and sanitation, the importance of good hygiene, including hand-washing, is forgotten,” she added. “However, in times of global health threats, the life-saving potential of hand-washing must be explored. During the 2009 A virus flu pandemic, global leaders were very conscious of hand-washing’s vital importance.”

As the 2015 deadline nears for the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which seek to slash a host of social ills, including diseases, hunger and poverty, Ms. de Albuquerque urged world leaders not to lose sight of the centrality of good hygiene for the full realization of the human rights to water, sanitation, health, as well as for dignity and development.

“Women’s needs should be also considered and incorporated in the delivery of water and sanitation services if we want to attain gender equality,” she stressed, making clear that with adequate menstrual hygiene management adolescent girls will not miss school days during their menstruation.

“I call on all to prioritize hand-washing and hygiene in the post-2015 development framework” as world governments start to set priorities and to make trade-offs in the context of discussions in respect of the next generation of global development goals, she said.

“Water and sanitation services have little value if not accompanied by the necessary resources which can be committed to promoting hygiene, to ensuring that sufficient water and the necessary soap is available for hand-washing at the appropriate times, particularly before eating and preparing food and after using the toilet. It all begins with soap and water,” Ms. de Albuquerque added.

To raise awareness of handwashing, a month of activities will take place in over 100 countries, with the participation of millions of children. In Ethiopia, five million people will participate in public handwashing events today. In Yemen, UNICEF and its partners are sending SMS texts messages to 2.5 million mobile phone users about the importance of handwashing, while almost one million school children will take part in related activities. In Viet Nam, a television advertisement is already being shown, featuring a well-known comedian and UNICEF Viet Nam Goodwill Ambassador, Xuan Bac, singing a handwashing song to children.

In addition, UNICEF and the Global Public Private Partnership for Handwashing have launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #Iwashmyhands that has reached thousands of people around the world, as well as a social media game entitled ‘World Wash Up,’ which encourages player to zap germs.