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The magical, fantastical way to save lives—Handwashing with soap


By Dr. Yang Zhenbo, UNICEF China Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist

Millions of children die each year from such preventable causes as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Hands often act as the vector that carries the disease-causing pathogens from person to person, either through direct contact or indirectly via surfaces. When not washed with soap, hands that have been in contact with human or animal faeces, body fluids like nasal excretions and contaminated foods or water can transport bacteria, viruses and parasites to unaware hosts, such as children.

Washing with soap interrupts that harmful transmission of disease. Yet, not many people know this or practise it. Around the world, the rate of handwashing with soap at critical moments ranges from zero to only 34 per cent[1].

Many people may wash their hands but do so improperly because they wash with water alone, which is significantly less effective than using soap (including liquid soap). Proper handwashing requires soap and only a small amount of water. Soap breaks down the grease and dirt that carry most germs, facilitating the rubbing and friction that dislodge them. With proper use, all soaps are equally effective at rinsing away disease-causing germs.

Studies have found that washing hands with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and cleaning a baby's bottom, before eating, before feeding babies and before preparing food for the family, helps reduce the incidence of diarrhoeal disease by more than 30-47 per cent[2]and respiratory infections by nearly 23 per cent[3]. Handwashing with soap by mothers and birth attendants can reduce neonatal mortality rates by 44 per cent[4]. Handwashing with soap can prevent skin infections, eye infections, intestinal worms and SARS. It can favourably impact the health of people living with HIV. Correct handwashing is now recommended as critical action to prevent the spread of H1N1 influenza.

And handwashing with soap can prevent diseases that kill millions of children every year!

Global advocates began in 2008 to promote handwashing with soap on 15 October, which has since become an annual event. In 2015, UNICEF DPRK Country Office partnered with several government ministries to organize activities that promote handwashing with soap and that were broadcast via national television. Timothy Schaffter, UNICEF Representative to DPRK made a vivid presentation of the magical impact from such a simple practice. 


[1]Scott B, Curtis V, Rabie T. Protecting children from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections: the role of handwashing promotion in water and sanitation programmes. WHO Regional Health Forum 2003; 7: 42–7.

[2]Curtis V, Cairncross S, ‘Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: a systematic review', Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2003, 3: 275–81.

[3]Tamer Rabie and Valerie Curtis, Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review, Tropical Medicine and International Health, 2006, 2 (3): 258-267.

[4]Victor Rhee, Luke C. Mullany, Subarna K. Khatry, Joanne Katz, Steven C. LeClerq, Gary L. Darmstadt, James M. Tielsch, Impact of Maternal and Birth Attendant Hand-Washing on Neonatal Mortality in Southern Nepal, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 2008, 162(7):603-608.

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