ISLAMABAD - As the world observes the sixth Global Handwashing Day on today (Tuesday), the UNICEF emphasises that the simple act of washing hands with soap before eating and after defecation can save precious lives of 320 children that die in Pakistan every day due to diarrhoeal diseases - the leading cause of mortality for children under the age of five in the country.

The Pakistani government, with support from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), is implementing a national sanitation programme reaching out to 1.1 million children, women and men in 11 selected districts from all provinces of Pakistan, to improve access to sanitation. Awareness campaigns led by teachers and Lady Health Workers focusing on hand washing with soap are being carried out with strong emphasis on improved sanitation, safe drinking water and hygiene.

"The extent of social, health and economic impact from lack of access to sanitation, hygiene and clean water is tremendous," said Raja Hasan Abbas, Secretary Climate Change Division. "Poor sanitation, hygiene and limited access to water trigger a downward slide into poverty, which the present government is trying to arrest," he added. 

Globally, diarrhoea remains the second largest cause of under-five mortality. With 600,000 children dying each year and over 1.7 billion cases, diarrhoeal diseases are also associated with a higher risk of stunting (low weight for age and developmental delay). However, the simplest and most inexpensive barrier to infection is hand washing with soap.

During his recent address at the Water Summit in Budapest, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban ki-moon said, "Repeated diarrhoea can cause childhood stunting. These children are more vulnerable to disease and their brains do not develop, as they should. It is plain that investment in sanitation is a down-payment on a sustainable future."

While a lot of efforts have been and are being carried out, much remains to be done. This year, while celebrating the Global Handwashing Day, UNICEF urges all citizens to play their role by taking the message of hand washing with soap to at least one family with children in their surroundings. This would help move jointly towards a safer and healthier Pakistan.

 "More people around the world and in Pakistan are now aware of the benefits of hand washing with soap," said Miriam de Figueroa, UNICEF Deputy Representative for Pakistan. "It is a cost-effective intervention to prevent diarrhoea and the return on this investment is improved health of children, especially the disadvantaged and marginalized," Miriam added.

WHO plans to join forces with government, UNICEF and other WASH and Health Partners to raise awareness about the benefits of handwashing with soap and share scientific evidence showing hand-washing with soap to be an exceptionally efficacious and cost-effective health intervention.

WHO states that the simple act of washing hands with soap can significantly cut the risk of diarrhea to 50 percent and that of respiratory tract infection to 45 percent.

WHO estimates that diarrhea kills one child every 30 seconds. Scientific research shows that handwashing with soap prevents disease in a more straightforward and cost-effective way than any single vaccine.

Hand-washing with soap thus represents a cornerstone of public health. It can be considered an affordable, accessible “do-it-yourself” vaccine.

WHO will mobilize millions of people across Pakistan, in IDP camps, schools, healthcare facilities and other community centers, to wash their hands with soap.

WHO focus during the event will be in sensitizing healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, sanitary staff, etc) in the fact that hand hygiene is the single most important method of preventing and controlling infection in healthcare facilities.

Many studies have shown that the bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections are most frequently spread from one patient to another on the hands of healthcare workers. Cleaning your hands before and after having contact with patients is one of the most important measures for preventing the spread of bacteria in healthcare settings.

Each year, over 200 million people are involved in celebrations in over 100 countries around the world. Global Handwashing is endorsed by a wide array of governments, international institutions, civil society organizations, NGOs, private companies, and individuals. Handwashing with soap is the most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrheal and acute respiratory infections, which take the lives of millions of children in developing countries every year. Together, they are responsible for the majority of all child deaths. Yet, despite its lifesaving potential, handwashing with soap is seldom practiced and difficult to promote.

Turning handwashing with soap before eating and after using the toilet into an ingrained habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter. A vast change in handwashing behavior is critical to meeting the Millennium Development Goal of reducing deaths among children under the age of five by two-thirds by 2015.

Global Handwashing Day focuses on children because not only do they suffer disproportionately from diarrheal and respiratory diseases and deaths, but research shows that children – the segment of society so often the most energetic, enthusiastic, and open to new ideas – can also be powerful agents for changing behaviors like handwashing with soap in their communities.