TOPICS: Clean hands save lives

At a time when over six hundred elected Constituent Assembly members hold the country’s future in their hands, every Nepali citizen can also hold the health of his family in his hands, with a small bar of soap. October 15, 2008, has been declared the first-ever Global Handwashing Day by the United Nations General Assembly. Nepal’s government and other hygiene and sanitation development professionals have joined hands to celebrate handwashing across Nepal.

Washing hands with water alone is not enough to do away with all the disease-inducing germs! Hands are the principal carriers of disease-causing germs. Many people here mistakenly think that removing the visible dirt is sufficient to make hands clean.

But washing with soap is significantly more effective than with water alone for breaking down and dislodging the dirt that carries most germs from the hands. It is among the most effective ways to prevent diarrhoeal disease and pneumonia, which together are responsible for the majority of child deaths in the world — and in Nepal.

Here in Nepal, analysis of the Nepal Demographic Health Survey suggests that about 2,200 children die from acute diarrhoea and about 10,900 from diarrhoea and respiratory disease combined each year. According to the research conducted by the Nepal Nutrition Intervention Project, the mortality rate among newborn babies drops by 41 per cent when birth attendants and mothers use soap to wash their hands.

Global Handwashing day gives welcome recognition to the efforts of Nepal’s community health

volunteers, health workers and school children who are playing a critical role in promoting handwashing with soap. However, greater awareness is sorely needed at the household level. An initial survey by the Hygiene Improvement Project, carried out by UNICEF Nepal and funded by United States Agency for International Development, Nepal from 2004-7, identified that 64 per cent of mothers typically washed their hands with soap after defecation or cleaning a child’s bottom, but only 20 per cent before cooking and 30 per cent before eating or feeding a child.

Soap is also a cost-effective health intervention. Using soap on a regular basis decreases the risk of disease even when families do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation.

Likewise, UNICEF has found that schools with latrines and handwashing facilities are a highly effective setting for teaching children the importance of handwashing. These children then go on to share the message with their families and communities.

Global Handwashing Day falls in the midst of Nepal’s festival season, and this is a good day to commit to improving your family’s health through this simple hygienic intervention. For instance, merely washing hands with soap could prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia as about two hundred and fifty thousand children suffer from these problems each year here in Nepal.