Washing hands with soap can prevent disease and save lives, stress UN experts

15 October 2009 – The simple act of washing hands with soap can drastically reduce deaths from preventable diseases, which are killing thousands of people everyday, a group of United Nations human rights experts stressed as they marked Global Handwashing Day.

“While access to water and sanitation are critical to the protection of human health, we must remember that these are only effective when combined with good hygiene,” emphasized Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Independent Expert on human rights, water and sanitation.

She noted that washing hands with soap “at critical moments, especially after defecating, before handling food, and after coughing and sneezing,” is crucial for the prevention of disease, adding that promoting this life-saving activity is part of a State’s human rights obligations.

Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, emphasized that children face the greatest risks from bad hygiene, which can lead to potentially fatal diseases.

Good hand washing practices are said to be the single most effective way to avoid contracting diseases, such as acute respiratory illnesses and diarrhoea-related diseases like cholera and dysentery, he noted in a news release. These diseases cause 3.5 million deaths among children under five each year and they are preventable.

In addition, hand washing with soap will be a crucial way to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus.

“Large sums of money are being spent as we speak on awareness-raising to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus – with similar prioritization, handwashing could reduce the spread of not only H1N1 virus, but many other equally dangerous communicable diseases. In fact, handwashing with soap could halve the number of children dying each year from diarrhoea,” said Mr. Grover.

“The school environment is a crucial place for hygiene promotion, since children will often take these lessons home, and it will influence other family members,” according to Mr.

Vernor Muñoz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, highlighted the fact that schools are crucial place for promoting good hygiene, since children can take these lessons home and influence family members.

“We have observed various projects which are based on this premise and are very successful. However, it is crucial that the school environment also provides adequate sanitation facilities,” he said.

The three experts stressed that promoting handwashing with soap must be a priority at the national level, and that States are obliged to ensure that public places, including public hospitals, schools and prisons, have appropriate facilities for good hygiene.

“Hygiene is a central part of the human rights obligations related to water, sanitation and health, and we call upon all States to comply with these obligations,” they stated.

The worldwide observance of Global Handwashing Day began in 2008 – which was also the UN International Year of Sanitation – and was spearheaded by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The Day is an initiative of the Public Private Partnership for Handwashing which brings together multilateral organizations, local community groups and the private sector.


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