The Star Early Edition
Diarrhoea the biggest killer of children under 5
World to celebrate Global Handwashing Day next week
AFEW years ago I watched with dismay as a uniformed chef in a restaurant at a popular Pretoria mall left the toilet cubicle without washing his hands.
Reeling from the shock, I followed him to see which restaurant he worked for. I observed that the restaurant was packed with customers who were sipping drinks while they waited for their main course meals.
Innocent customers were about to be served meals that were prepared with dirty hands. I was torn between a moral obligation to report him to the restaurant manager and save customers from possible harm. But the prospect of him losing his job because of this, restrained me.
On October 15 the world will celebrate Global Handwashing Day to remind us of the importance of washing hands to reduce the risk of spreading communicable diseases.
How many of us – at home or in a working environment – remember to wash our hands before touching food, after using the toilet, or before breastfeeding? Figures released by the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) of the daily child mortality rate under the age of 5 from diseases related to diarrhoea due to a lack of safe water, hygiene and sanitation, are shocking.
The world body estimates that more than 1 400 children die from this water-borne disease daily and unless urgent measures are taken to tackle this scourge, the figure is likely to double.
The figure indicates that diarrhoea kills 600 000 children annually.
Solution? The washing of hands with soap could dramatically reduce these deaths.
Global head of Unicef’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (Wash) programme, Sanjay Wijesekera, says the simple act of washing hands with soap before touching food and after using the toilet, is arguably the cheapest and most effective way of saving children’s lives. It is also the safest way to avert water-borne diseases in adults.
In South Africa the culture of washing hands after using the toilet was once embraced wholeheartedly and it became a culture. However, the practice was gradually jettisoned and the shaking of hands became rampant. Wash was introduced and advocated by the government and Unicef in 2002 in Nhlumayo, a small village in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal.
The washing of hands before eating is common practice among African families. The serving of food is normally preceded by a bowl of water and a cloth to dry the visitor’s hands. It is considered uncultural to be served food without washing one’s hands. It is a sign of respect. Unfortunately, the practice of not washing one’s own hands after using the toilet continues unabated.
The Department of Water and Sanitation is leading a campaign to remind South Africans of all races and ages about the importance of washing hands with soap.
The health risks of transmitting water-borne diseases through unwashed hands are too dire to contemplate. To this end, the department is partnering with the private sector to spread the gospel of clean hands.
Pupils are taught about washing hands at school because the department believes that by educating the youth, we are investing in the future of the country.
There is a tendency among some South Africans to ignore public toilets and opt to relieve themselves in the veld. Some bus and taxi ranks, for instance, have become a serious health hazard with most men choosing to relieve themselves in public.
Municipalities must enforce the environmental by-laws on hygiene standards.
With the festive season around the corner, celebrations will be aplenty. In some cases men who participate in the slaughtering rituals will do so without washing their hands or utensils. In this way it’s often easy to spread communicable diseases to the consumers of meat. However, some cultures are very strict.
Themba Khumalo is a content producer in the Department of Water and Sanitation.
Water-borne diseases can be stopped