(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Hand-washing saves children's lives

In Bangladesh, 16 million children in 73,000 schools will be trained to wash hands with soap to cut diarrhoeal death of children by half and pneumonia deaths by a quarter.
Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN

More than 16 million children in 73,000 primary and secondary schools in Bangladesh will mark the first global hand-washing day on 15 October with a vow to keep themselves free of diarrhoea and pneumonia - two major killers of children spread mainly via dirty hands.

"Children are the most powerful agents of change in society," said Carel de Rooy, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Bangladesh. "If children learn basic hygiene education and practice from the beginning of their lives, they can work as a catalyst to change the whole society."

In Bangladesh, more than 35,000 children under-five die of diarrhoeal diseases each year, an average of 100 deaths a day, according to UNICEF.

"More than 40 percent of these deaths could be prevented simply by washing hands with soap," Mahatab Hasan, skin cleansing product group manager of Unilever Bangladesh, told IRIN. The company contributed soap for schools to the campaign.

More on diarrhoea in Banlgadesh
 Hot weather, poverty to blame for diarrhoea outbreak
 Health services “coping” in battle against diarrhoea
 Effective systems keep diarrhoea in check even during floods

 See also

 INDONESIA: Handwashing with soap saves lives
 Global Handwashing Day 15 October

Knowledge-practice gap

According to a May 2008 study by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) in 100 communities in 34 of the country's 64 districts, 14 percent of people reported washing hands with soap before eating, but fewer than 1 percent actually did so.

Similarly, 56 percent of people reported washing hands with soap or ash after defecation, but only 17 percent were seen doing so.

While many people practise some form of hand-washing, in most cases people did not use soap or ash and only one hand was washed, the survey found.

Such practices do not remove germs and do not prevent the transmission of diseases such as diarrhoea or pneumonia.

"Although our people wash hands regularly, most of them do not do it in a hygienic manner. Washing hands with only water and no soap does not make them germ-free. Moreover, since our people eat with their hands and also do anal cleansing with hands, in Bangladesh washing hands means washing them after every defecation and before every food intake," Mohammad Ibrahim, deputy project director of the government-UNICEF project on sanitation, said.

"Studies have proven that effective hand-washing - for at least 20 seconds - with soap, cuts deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea by some 50 percent," he said.

Poor record

Globally, South Asia has the worst sanitation indicators and six of the eight countries in the region are not on target to meet the Millennium Development Goal.

The region has the highest rate in the world of people using no toilet at all – 48 percent of the population – with some 778 million people still relying on open defecation, the riskiest sanitation practice of all.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
More than 35,000 children under five die of diarrhoeal diseases each year, an average of 100 deaths a day, according to UNICEF

Only Pakistan and Sri Lanka are going to achieve the improved sanitation goals of dramatically reducing related deaths among under-fives by 2015. This refers to using any facility that hygienically separates human waste from the environment.

"We know that this single, very ordinary act of washing hands with soap can have an extraordinary impact on saving the lives of South Asian children," said Dan Toole, regional director of UNICEF South Asia.

Studies in Pakistan and elsewhere have proven that hand-washing - for at least 20 seconds - with soap, cuts deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea by some 50 percent and is the cheapest health intervention in the world.

Saving children

Proper sanitation could save more than a half a million children in the region each year.

Of the approximately 120 million children born in the developing world each year, half do not have access to improved sanitation, jeopardising their survival and development, according to a WHO document.

Poor hygiene and lack of access to sanitation together contribute to about 88 percent of deaths from diarrhoeal diseases - 1.5 million diarrhoea-related under-five deaths each year - the document states.

Making hand-washing with soap a habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhoea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by a quarter, states the document.


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