Simple hand-washing with soap can cut hundreds of thousands of deaths a year, UN says

In the Central Africa Republic in 2008, a child holds out a bar of soap. UNICEF distributed soap as part of a national immunisation campaign. Photo: UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1510/Pierre Holtz

15 October 2013 – From Ethiopia and Yemen to Bolivia and Viet Nam millions of children are today taking part in the sixth annual United Nations-backed Global Handwashing Day, driving home the message that the simple use of soap and water can slash highly preventable diarrhoeal diseases that kill 1,400 children under five every day.

“Washing hands before eating and after defecation drastically reduces the spread of diarrhoeal disease and has far reaching effects on the health and welfare of children and communities,” the global head of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes, Sanjay Wijesekera, said in a message marking the Day, whose theme this year is The Power Is in our Hands.

“The simple act of handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways to save children's lives.”

In Ethiopia, some 5 million children are participating in handwashing demonstrations and workshops around the country. In Yemen, Global Handwashing Day celebrations will take place in 3,300 schools, involving 1.4 million children. There is also a mass media campaign aimed at sensitizing the public around hand washing.

One thousand schools in Viet Nam; 450 primary schools in Sierra Leone and 424 in Mali; 200 schools in 50 communities in the Gambia; 12 cities in Indonesia and 22 educational institutions in several municipalities in Bolivia – will be holding Global Hand Washing Day activities.

According to UNICEF, diarrhoea remains the second largest cause of under-five mortality globally. Some 600,000 children die each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene out of a total of over 1.7 billion cases.

These diseases are also associated with a higher risk of stunting, as shown by low weight for age and developmental delay, and they take a huge toll on society. However, one of the simplest and most inexpensive barriers to infection is hand washing with soap.

“The evidence is clear. Each individual - every mother, every child, every teacher, every member of every community - can contribute to the health of all by just washing their hands,” Mr. Wijesekera said. “If you knew of something monumental that could benefit the world, you would do it. Everyone has this power – simply wet, lather and rinse - with soap and water.”


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UN-backed Handwashing Day: soap and water saves millions of lives

Related Stories





In-depth Interviews