October 15 marks the seventh Global Handwashing Day – an international campaign to motivate and mobilize millions to wash their hands with soap. This year, as the Ebola crisis largely preoccupies the global health community, UNICEF states that the fight against Ebola further underscores the importance of handwashing for disease prevention.
“Handwashing with soap is one of the cheapest, most effective ‘vaccines’ against viral diseases, from the seasonal flu, to the common cold,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene programs, in a recent UN Children’s Fund report.
“Our teams on the ground in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are stressing the importance of handwashing as part of a raft of measures that are needed to halt the spread of Ebola. It is not a magic bullet, but it is a means of additional defense which is cheap and readily available,” said Wijesekera.
According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, nearly 1,000 children a day died from diarrheal diseases in 2013 due to a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene; and handwashing with soap is one of the most cost effective and easiest ways to prevent these deaths. As Ebola takes its toll on many of West Africa’s health systems, handwashing with soap is more important than ever to prevent the spread of disease.
According to the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, handwashing with soap is a “do-it-yourself vaccine” that prevents infections and saves lives. Ensuring that adequate handwashing at critical times – such as before and after eating and after using the toilet – is an ingrained habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention. It could reduce deaths from diarrheal disease by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by as much as 25 percent.
This year, the theme for Global Handwashing Day is “Choose handwashing, choose health,” a message that emphasizes the role of human choice in handwashing and environmental health. Handwashing is a choice that everyone can make multiple times a day, and choosing to do so ensures a healthier environment not only for handwashers, but for everyone.