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As the world marks the 6th annual Global Handwashing Day, new figures released by UNICEF claim 1,400 children under five still die every day from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene practices.

‘The simple act of handwashing is one of the most effective ways to save children’s lives,’ said Sanjay Wijesekera, global head of UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes. ‘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.’

According to UNICEF, diarrhoea remains the second largest cause of under-five mortality in the world. However, one of the simplest and most inexpensive barriers to infection can be better hand hygiene. Research shows that children living in households which promote good handwashing behaviours had half the diarrheal rates of children living in control neighbourhoods. Because handwashing can prevent the transmission of a variety of pathogens, it may be more effective than any single vaccine.

In this sense, handwashing can be thought of as a ‘do it yourself’ vaccine, as a preventative measure rather than a cure. One which is ideal for areas of the world without access to first-class healthcare and medical intervention, and one which offers unparalleled cost-effectiveness in terms of preventing disease.

Since its inception in 2008 by The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap (PPPHW) Global Handwashing Day has promoted events around the world to raise awareness of the crucially important role hygiene can play in a child’s survival and the overall health of their community.

Originally created for children and schools the movement has now blossomed into a worldwide celebration which is estimated to involve over 200 million people in over 100 countries. The active participation and involvement of children, along with culturally sensitive community-based interventions aim at ensuring sustained behavioural change.

Global Handwashing Day also provides an opportunity to raise questions over some of the potentially harmful chemical ingredients that are still used in many soap and hand washes.

The worry is that legislation has struggled to keep up with chemical development and long after they’ve been made available for daily use, links are being made between some of these chemicals and health concerns such as hormone disruption, allergies, asthma and even cancer.

‘Unfortunately, the majority of people assume that the chemicals we use have been thoroughly tested and regulated,’ says campaigner against toxic chemicals and founder of ecostore, Malcolm Rands. ‘While good hand washing technique is very important, there are many chemicals such as tricolsan, parabens, cocamide DEA and SLS cocamidopropyl betaine that are widely used in many soaps and hand washes. These chemicals can dry and irritate the skin by stripping away the protective oils and lead to more serious conditions like eczema and dermatitis.’

‘When most people wash their hands, it’s cleanliness not nasty chemicals on their minds. When really our attitude should be if there is scientific proof or any doubt that such chemicals could harm us, we use the precautionary principle and find a safer one,’ says Rands.

This year’s theme, announced by the PPPHW, is ‘The power in your hands’ because, the partnership says, everyone has the power to make an impact in creating healthier communities through the power of hand hygiene.

Written by PAUL WILSON — October 15, 2013

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