By Muhammad Kabir
October 15 is Global Handwashing Day, a global advocacy day dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding about the importance of handwashing with soap as an effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives.
With cholera spreading fast in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, and with a new outbreak in war-ravaged Yemen, UNICEF urges children, families and communities to make washing hands with soap a habit to help prevent the spread of diseases.
On the eve of Global Handwashing Day, UNICEF says that, in 2015, more than 300,000 children under the age of five died globally from diarrhoeal infections linked to poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation – a rate of more than 800 per day. Yet many of these deaths could have been prevented through the simple act of handwashing with soap.
“Every year, 1.4 million children are dying from largely preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea,” said UNICEF’s global head of water, sanitation and hygiene Sanjay Wijesekera. “These are staggering numbers, but they could be greatly reduced by working with children and families to adopt a very straightforward solution – handwashing. We know, for example, that handwashing with soap before meals and after using the toilet could reduce the incidence of diarrhoeal infections by 40 per cent.”
A recent survey conducted by UNICEF in Nigeria found that about 10 per cent of households did not know about the critical times to wash hands and could not demonstrate proper handwashing techniques. The survey also revealed that only 12 per cent of households have handwashing facilities with soap or ash located at their latrines.
Proper handwashing practice also contributes to the healthy development of children by keeping them in school. Handwashing actually improves school attendance by reducing the spread of preventable diseases, which means children are not staying home because of illness.
“Handwashing just makes sense as a frontline preventive measure to keep children safe from disease – it’s simple, cost effective and a proven lifesaver,” said Wijesekera.
In Haiti, a country with poor water and sanitation infrastructure and a persistent cholera outbreak, suspected cholera cases and acute diarrhoea have increased sharply since the October 4 hurricane.
“This is everyone’s worst nightmare,” said Marc Vincent, UNICEF Representative in Haiti. “Less than two weeks after the hurricane, cholera may be spreading in areas where it previously barely existed and diarrhoea is preying on already vulnerable children. Immediate action is essential – children’s health is at risk.”
Global Handwashing Day is an opportunity to design, test, and replicate creative ways to encourage people to wash their hands with soap at critical times.