Global Handwashing Day

“You don’t need to invent some Nobel Prize winning formula to save millions of children. The solution already exists: soap and water,” says Therese Dooley, UNICEF's senior adviser on sanitation and hygiene.

October 15 is the fifth annual Global Handwashing Day. Millions of children in more than 100 countries will draw attention to handwashing as a way to cure diarrhea-related diseases (such as cholera, typhoid, and dehydration). It's a simple message that needs to be heard: UNICEF studies show that every day 1,800 children die from these diseases due to a lack of safe water and basic hygiene.

Today public handwashing events are taking place all around the world: 5 million Ethiopians are participating, as are children from 1.3 million schools in India. UNICEF and its partners have sent 2.5 million mobile phone users texts about the importance of handwashing. (No better way to reach people than through a text.)

Two years ago I visited Bangladesh and talked to children about handwashing. Children in remote areas as well as cities were already well aware of the importance of handwashing with soap. They explained "Clean hands save lives," and they told me that if soap was not available they used ash—collected after cooking over a wood fire.

I also learned that because diarrhea-related diseases are so common mothers are often taught to make their own rehydration solutions using a mixture of water, salt and molasses. If a mother brings an infant or child suffering from diarrhea to a hospital in Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh, home to more than 10 million people), they will not be released until they have participated in a training workshop.

So many Bangladeshi children participated in the 2009 Global Handwashing Day that they set a Guinness Book of World Records. That year, 52,970 children washed their hands with soap and water at the same time—letting people know there is a need for simple hygiene.

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