New York — As the world celebrates the fifth annual Global Handwashing Day, UNICEF emphasizes the fact that the very simple act of handwashing with soap can save hundreds of thousands of children who needlessly die every year.
Child mortality figures released by UNICEF last month show that some 2,000 children under five die each day from diarrhoeal diseases. Of these the vast majority - or about 1,800 children per day - die from diarrhoeal diseases due to a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene.
Though the number has significantly declined in the five years since Global Handwashing Day was established, UNICEF says it is still too high.
"Global Handwashing Day is more than just a day," says Therese Dooley, UNICEF's senior advisor on sanitation and hygiene. "We want the message to spread from children to families, communities and nations. Halting the spread of diarrhoeal disease is not complicated, or costly, but it is critically important that handwashing with soap becomes routine for everyone."
This year UNICEF has new country-level data from household surveys showing the prevalence of handwashing in families. The data paint a diverse picture, which shows the practice differs from country to country and is influenced by location, culture and wealth.
For example, in Swaziland in 2010, 50 per cent of urban families were likely to practice handwashing, compared to only 26 per cent in rural areas. In Rwanda only 2 per cent of the population practiced handwashing, with a negligible difference between rural and urban households. At the same time, 96 per cent of the wealthiest households in Mongolia practice appropriate handwashing compared to 10 per cent of the poorest.
As diarrhoeal diseases are basically faecal-oral in nature, one of the simplest and most inexpensive barriers to infection is handwashing with soap at critical times, such as before handling food and after defecation or changing a diaper.
This year the message will be carried by millions of school children in over 100 countries in a month of activities. In Ethiopia, 5 million people including children will participate in public handwashing events on Global Handwashing Day. In India, children in 1.3 million primary and upper primary schools will celebrate the day.
In Yemen, UNICEF and its partners are sending SMS texts to 2.5 million mobile phone users about the importance of handwashing while almost 1 million school children will take part in related activities. In Vietnam, the campaign has already started with a television spot featuring comedian Xuan Bac, a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene ambassador, who sings a handwashing song with children.
UNICEF with the Global Public Private Partnership for Handwashing are also rolling out a social media campaign with the hashtag #iwashmyhands which has already reached thousands around the world. The partnership has also developed a 'World Wash Up' game on the Global Handwashing Day site that invites players to zap germs.
"We are pulling out all the stops to ensure that everyone gets the message," says Dooley. "You don't need to invent some Nobel Prize winning formula to save millions of children. The solution already exists: soap and water."
About Global Handwashing Day:
Global Handwashing Day is celebrated on October 15. The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap initiated Global Handwashing Day in 2008, and it is endorsed by governments, international institutions, civil society organisations, NGOs, private companies and individuals around the globe. Visit www.globalhandwashingday.org