Handwashing Day helps spread the good news about soap
MORE than 3.4 million people the world over die every year from waterborne diseases. In South Africa, cholera and typhoid epidemics have been identified as the silent assassins that creep up on children under the age of five. Lack of access to clean water and poverty are the major causes for the outbreak of the diseases, the World Health Organisation says in its report.
Furthermore, a report published recently in the medical journal, The Lancet, concluded poor water sanitation and a lack of safe drinking water take a greater human toll than war, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction combined. However, the two major and overriding factors that facilitate infectious disease transmission are poverty, with its associated overcrowding, and human behaviour, especially close human contact (as people live in crowded conditions, often clustering around water).
In South Africa the need for this awareness of water-related microbial diseases arose as a result of the typhoid epidemic in 2005 in Delmas, Mpumalanga, which claimed the lives of five people and led to dozens of others being admitted to hospital after human waste was found in one of the boreholes. Salmonella typhi, the bacteria that causes typhoid, was found in borehole A4 in the area.
According to an assessment commissioned by the UN, 4000 children die each day as a result of diseases caused by ingestion of filthy water. The report says four out of every 10 people in the world, particularly those in Africa and Asia, do not have clean water to drink.
“At any given time, close to half the population of the developing world is suffering from water-borne diseases associated with inadequate provision of water and sanitation services. There are about four billion cases of diarrhoeal diseases per year, resulting in about one or two million deaths, 90% of which, tragically, are in children under the age of five,” said Hugh Peterson of WHO.
Cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitisA are caused by bacteria, and are among the most common diarrhoeal diseases.Other illnesses, such as dysentery, are caused by parasites that live in water contaminated by the faeces of sick people. Lakes and streams which people use for drinking water, bathing and defecating are sources of disease, as is water left by natural disasters. Last year’s tsunami left victims in ankle-deep water, amid destroyed sewage pipes.
People can also contract a diarrhoeal disease by eating food that’s prepared by infected people who have not washed their hands, or touching something handled by an infected person and then putting their own hands into their mouths.
Hygiene experts say there are short-term and long-term measures that can be taken to prevent the spread of water-borne illnesses. In the short term, they say people should wash their hands as much as possible, use a latrine, even if it’s a hole in the ground, and boil water and store it. For the long term, communities must have sources of clean drinking water. Up to 50% of places with unsafe drinking water once had systems that functioned, but they fell apart due to lack of maintenance.
It is against this background that South Africans will join the international community in celebrating Global Handwashing Day on October15. This campaign aims to increase awareness about the importance of washing your hands with soap as an easy, effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives. The minister of water and sanitation will visit Masedi Primary, a crèche and a clinic in Klerksdorp, North West, to share the experience of handwashing with local children.
Under the theme Our Hands, Our Future, on this day we South Africans will be reminded that hand-washing protects our own health, but also allows us to build our own future, as well as those of our communities and the world. The department has fostered strong partnerships with the private sector, especially the companies that manufacture hygiene-related products.
The first Global Handwashing Day was held in 2008, when more than 120million children around the world washed their hands with soap in more than 70 countries. Since 2008, community and national leaders have used Global Handwashing Day to spread the word about hand-washing, and build sinks and Tippy Taps.
Each year, more than 200million people are involved in celebrations in more than 100 countries around the world. The day is endorsed by a wide range of governments, international institutions, civil society organisations, NGOs, private companies, and individuals.
Hand-washing is an affordable, effective way to achieve the goals of hygiene, even among poor communities.
Washing with soap could prevent many of the 272million school days lost to diarrhoeal disease each year, and 50% of the infections acquired in health care settings.
Efforts on Global Handwashing Day to promote the benefits and practice of hand-washing with soap, as well as fostering access to and improving hygiene facilities, can help us work towards a future of zero hunger, good health, quality education, reduced inequality and more.
Khumalo is a Content Developer in the Department of Water and Sanitation