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The Science of 'Washing Your Hands'

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On the first-ever Global Handwashing Day sponsored by UNICEF on October 15, students and teachers from more than 700 participating schools across Angola engaged in symbolic acts of handwashing and listened to government leaders speak out about the importance of using water and soap.


Attending the launch of Global Handwashing Day was UNICEF Representative in Angola Angela Kearney.


Today only marks the beginning of a major push to promote handwashing with soap as a natural and necessary habit – in schools, in the family, in institutions. We know it can save children’s lives so we cannot afford to take it lightly,” she declared.


At least two million cases of diarrhea are recorded every year in Angola, with 30% of cases recorded in children under the age of five years.  This has resulted in an average 20,000 child deaths per year.


Improvements in access to safe water and adequate sanitation, along with the promotion of good hygiene practices (particularly handwashing with soap), can help prevent childhood diarrhea. In fact, an estimated 88 per cent of diarrheal deaths worldwide are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

UNICEF maintains that washing hands with soap can save lives and reduce about 47% of the infantile death rate, caused by diarrhea, due to the lack of hygiene.

Washing one’s hands with soap is an important barrier to transmission and has been cited as one of the most cost-effective public-health interventions. Research suggests that handwashing with soap is effective even in overcrowded and highly contaminated slums in the developing world; washing hands with water alone is much less effective in preventing disease than using soap. Soap breaks down grease and dirt that carry germs and disease-causing pathogens. Using soap also increases the amount of time spent washing hands, compared to water alone, yet lack of soap does not seem to be a major barrier to handwashing: it has been found that 95 per cent of mothers in developing countries have some sort of soap product at home.

To better understand ways to promote hygienic behavior, UNICEF research has been carried out regarding consumers’ handwashing habits and factors that motivate change. This research shows that key triggers for handwashing are feelings of disgust, nurture, comfort and desire to conform, rather than health concerns alone. These findings are being used to create more effective hygiene programs. (UNICEF, ANGOP)


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